Rutledge Catholic mission preparing to move into new worship space
By Bill Brewer
St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Grainger County is approaching an important milestone toward its goal of becoming a Diocese of Knoxville parish.
One of the newest faith communities in the diocese is nearing completion on construction of a church building in Rutledge that will provide a permanent home for Catholics in this area.
A church building Catholics in this part of East Tennessee can call home has been years in the making.
The Glenmary Home Missioners founded the mission in 2011 along with St. Teresa of Kolkata Catholic Mission in Maynardville and St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission in Erwin. In all three locations, the Glenmary priests began by identifying as many Catholics as possible in Grainger, Union, and Unicoi counties. Masses were then initially held in homes until the congregations began to grow for regular weekly Masses.
Then storefront retail spaces in Rutledge and Maynardville were leased for dedicated Church services. A house in Erwin continued to serve as St. Michael’s church and rectory.
St. Teresa of Kolkata was elevated from mission to parish by Bishop Richard F. Stika in September 2014. The parishioners there raised money and erected their own church building, which Bishop Stika dedicated in February 2019. Bishop Stika also elevated St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission to parish status and dedicated its then-new church building in September 2018 after parishioners raised funds.
Now, St. John Paul II is anticipating the dedication of its new church and possible elevation to parish by Bishop Stika.
Father Neil Pezzulo, GHM, pastor of St. John Paul II Catholic Mission and St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish, credits fellow Glenmary priest Father Steve Pawelk for establishing the Rutledge and Maynardville Catholic communities. Father Pawelk was pastor of St. Teresa of Kolkata when Bishop Stika elevated it and dedicated its new church, and he was pastor of St. John Paul II as construction on its new church building began.
Father Pawelk received another assignment from the Glenmary order in January 2020 and Father Pezzulo succeeded.
Father Pezzulo said it is a gift to be able to follow a “visionary” like Father Pawelk, who saw in the design of the new church what the needs of St. John Paul II Parish were going to be and also saw a vision for the future.
When Father Pezzulo arrived, some initial excavation work had been done on the site of the new church, located at 161 Bryan Road at the corner of Rutledge Pike.
“A couple of months before I came they broke ground officially, and the excavator had been working when I arrived,” Father Pezzulo recalled. “We’re very fortunate to get that piece of property. It’s one of the prettiest pieces of property in the town. It’s in a great location, right on the main drag near the schools. Rutledge Pike is the main road through Grainger County. We have a wonderful location that came to us through the Catholic Foundation of East Tennessee.”
Father Pezzulo said the current church space, a small storefront with a few hundred square feet in a retail strip center in the middle of Rutledge, gets crowded for Masses.
When the new church is completed, it will be 5,500 square feet on nine acres. It will seat up to 125 people for Masses with capacity to easily add chairs if the congregation size requires it.
Father Pezzulo is uncertain how many Catholics are in Grainger County because Mass attendance varies from Sunday to Sunday.
“We’re averaging about 65 people for the Mass in Spanish each week, but it isn’t always the same 65 people. It comes and goes; there are work schedules and the rhythms of life. Pre-COVID, we were getting 80 to 100 people at the Spanish Mass, and that was crowded. We get about 30 at the English Mass, and that has been consistent. And there is a little growth,” he said.
He channeled Yogi Berra in explaining the logistics of currently celebrating Mass in Rutledge. Yogi is famously quoted as saying, “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”
But Father Pezzulo is excited about the immediate future.
“Yogi Berra was right, no one comes because they can’t get a seat anymore. But they’ll be able to get a seat now. And if you think about it on a very practical level, if you go to a place and there is room for you, and you can sit down and relax and be a part of it, then you’re more inclined to be part of it,” he said.
Current Mass accommodations also don’t promote growth, as Father Pezzulo can attest. And it’s not just the present lack of room for Mass and other services.
“We’ve had some people come in, look around, and say this isn’t a real church and leave. One person who is retiring and moving to Rutledge from the Chicago area said he will come back when we get a ‘real church.’ He’s also very kind and generous. He has called a couple of times when he was in town to see when weekday Masses are held. It wasn’t like he was angry and left. He was just like, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been in a church like this,’” Father Pezzulo said referring to the storefront space.
St. John Paul II Catholic Mission is the third Glenmary Home Missioners church-construction project Father Pezzulo has been involved in. With that knowledge, he’s confident the Rutledge Catholic community will see continued growth.
“Based on my experience, people will surface when there’s a new building who have never surfaced before. I think that’s going to happen here in both the English community and the Spanish community,” he said.
According to Father Pezzulo, St. John Paul II volunteers and members who are professionals in the construction business have made the church project financially possible.
The Glenmary priest is one of the volunteers. Another is Glenmary Brother Joe Steen, who is an accomplished woodworker and built the St. John Paul II walls as well as other parts of the new building.
And the general contractor on the project, who is licensed and bonded, is a parishioner at St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish.
“This is the only way we could have afforded this project without a mortgage. But the real gift here isn’t so much about the economics; it’s about the ownership, the sweat equity. This is our church. We built our church. There is a lot of ownership in it, which is kind of a new concept for a lot of people,” Father Pezzulo explained. “The woodworker, who built the altar or altar furnishings, every Sunday is going to look and say, ‘I built that.’ Fredy, the guy who installed the drywall, is going to say, ‘Look, I did that.’ They built the table for the St. Mary statue or the Our Lady of Guadalupe statue, they put in the sound system. They did this themselves, so they can see it.”
Father Pezzulo compared it to a couple who have just renovated their house. They are very proud to show off their work.
“They’re invested. This makes it their place. It’s primarily an immigrant community. It gives the immigrants a place to call their own. Everywhere they go, nothing is theirs. It’s not their food, it’s not their language, it’s not their system, it’s not their culture. Here, they can have that. And if I can provide a place for them to come and feel safe, let their kids play on a playground or hang out, play football, soccer, basketball, and their parents can relax and socialize, and build those strong bonds that build community and neighborhoods, we’ve done something good,” he added.
He pointed out that when the Glenmary priests arrived in Rutledge, Maynardville, and Erwin in 2011, they discovered there were many more Catholics in these areas than they thought. Still, Catholics are less than 1 percent of the population in Grainger, Union, and Unicoi counties.
“But they wanted a Catholic community. They wanted a church in town, which they were able to do in Maynardville and Erwin,” he said.
Now, that dream is becoming a reality in Rutledge.
He said the Glenmary Home Missioners serve the general community in addition to the Catholic community.
“The way things have unfolded in the last 10 years, it’s clear to me that God wants a Catholic church in that town (Rutledge), but I don’t think we need to be the biggest church, or the high-powered church in town. We need to be the faithful church in town,” Father Pezzulo said.
“Scripture speaks of leaving the 99 and going after the one. Pope Francis speaks of going to the periphery. The founder of Glenmary speaks about going after the lost and forgotten. It’s three different ways of saying the same thing. There are people out there who have no connection. They may not necessarily be lost, but they don’t have a strong connection anywhere. So, let’s invite them in and build a relationship or an encounter,” he continued.
He said the St. John Paul II Catholic Mission hosts a weekly Bible study that includes people from neighboring faiths who are Baptist, Methodist, Quaker, even a lady who says she’s a spiritualist. Glenmary pastoral associate Clarisia Chavarria leads the Bible study.
“We do it every Tuesday afternoon at 4 o’clock. You can plug in or you can plug out, depending on your schedule. Everyone is welcome,” the Glenmary priest said. “Even though we’re small, less than 1 percent of the population, we have a broad base of support and supporters. Many of our supporters, in prayer and in time, talent, and treasure, understand what we’re doing is good. They understand it’s of God. And they understand it’s not about denominations. A Jewish guy who donates, a guy I grew up with, sometimes gives $500 a month, sometimes it’s $300 a month. But every month it comes . . . for the poor. He respects what we’re trying to do to show dignity and respect toward the poor. Baptists I’ve become friends with are very supportive of what we’re trying to do because we’re not only there to serve the Catholics, we’re there to serve the town, and they see us doing that.”
He noted that people around the town of Rutledge are fascinated how he is friends with clergy from different denominations.
Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and a vicar general for the diocese, has been working with Father Pezzulo in overseeing the St. John Paul II project. He shares Father Pezzulo’s excitement about the new church and what it means for a growing East Tennessee faith community and the diocese.
“This is a historic moment for the Catholic community in Grainger County because it signals a permanent commitment to have a Catholic presence in an area that has never had a Catholic presence previous to the arrival of the Glenmary Missioners,” Father Boettner said.
The vicar general, who managed construction of the large cathedral building project, describes what the Rutledge faithful are accomplishing as inspirational.
“The support of the local community and the volunteer crews from the parish has been inspiring. I am so proud of the investment of the parishioners in building a permanent home for their community. They have also had a lot of support from the non-Catholic community who are excited about their growth,” Father Boettner noted.
Father Pezzulo is hopeful the steady construction pace will continue and that St. John Paul II members are in their new church in early 2022 if not sooner.
“I have every intention of celebrating the Easter vigil at that new church,” the Glenmary priest said.