By Jim Wogan
In his 13 years shepherding the Diocese of Knoxville, Bishop Richard F. Stika has become quite familiar with the interstates and backroads of East Tennessee.
He’s logged plenty of miles and burned tank loads of gas getting to Masses, meetings, social events, and dedications at parishes and mission churches in the cities and smaller communities that dot the 36 counties of the diocese.
Now he has another reason to travel. And he’s happy to do so.
For the first time since its inception, the Catholic Foundation of East Tennessee held membership appreciation dinners at three locations this year. It was a move designed to make it easier for foundation members to attend what used to be a single event held each autumn in Knoxville.
“This was a good idea,” Bishop Stika said. “We have so many people who support the Catholic Foundation financially, and I actually loved seeing them and sharing dinner with them closer to their home communities.”
The Catholic Foundation is a vital fundraising arm for the building of churches and the education of seminarians in the Diocese of Knoxville.
“What foundation members do, essentially, is help us build the Catholic Church in East Tennessee,” said Deacon Hicks Armor, director of Stewardship and Strategic Planning for the diocese. “We do it by purchasing land to build churches, and we also do it by educating future priests.
“As we have said for many years, we do it one priest and one parish at a time. The Catholic Foundation is one of the most important stewardship components in the diocese, and we’re always looking for new members.”
The diocese had 38 parishes when it was established by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988. Since then, 12 new parishes have been established. A Catholic mission, St. John Paul II in Rutledge, is currently building a new church on land purchased by the foundation. Its elevation to a full parish could happen in spring 2022.
This year, dinners were held in Kingsport, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.
Cardinal Justin Rigali attended the Knoxville dinner and offered the opening invocation.
The focus at each event this year was on seminarian education. The featured speaker at all three dinners was Father Christopher Floersh, director of vocat ions for the diocese.
“In October, I had the opportunity to visit St. Meinrad Seminary, where nine of our men currently study. It’s a monastery in southern Indiana and it includes a seminary and school of theology. Just to brag about our guys, all of them are doing incredibly well in their intellectual formation. Two of them still, after a few years at St. Meinrad, maintain a 4.0 grade point average, and that’s absolutely incredible considering everything the seminary demands of our guys.
“The most impressive thing that I heard during my visit was that the Knoxville men are known for being found at 6 a.m., in general, almost every day, in the chapel having their daily holy hour. They are building their relationship with God because without a relationship with God, and without that seeking holiness, they don’t have that to give. That is absolutely the most impressive thing about all our guys. They love God. They love the Church. They choose to give up everything for it. Some of our guys have left college to pursue this and to see if this is what God wants in their life,” Father Floersh said.
Three of the seminarians at St. Meinrad, Joey Austin of Kingsport, Neil Blatchford of Chattanooga, and Andrew Crabtree of Madisonville, are on schedule to be ordained transitional deacons in June 2022 and could be ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Knoxville in 2023.
There currently are 13 men in formation for the priesthood in the diocese, and the cost to educate them is staggering.
It takes more than $916,000 annually, the largest single line-item expenditure in the diocesan budget each year. Much of the funding — $338,000 in 2020 — comes from the annual diocesan Bishop’s Appeal. Catholic Foundation members do their best to make up some of the balance.
“I do want to make a request, beyond monetary sustenance,” Father Floersh told those attending the Knoxville dinner. “It is a request for continued prayers. We had one of these banquets on Thursday night (Kingsport), and after that, I received an unexpected phone call from a man who said he is desiring the priesthood in our diocese. We don’t know if it will happen, but it makes sense to me that soon after we asked everyone for additional prayers for more priests, and not just more priests, but holy priests, that somebody would respond to that call. So please, in addition to your pledge, whatever it may be this year, pledge to pray for more holy priests.”
Father Floersh also told members that he offers a special Mass for their intention each week.
One of the highlights of the dinners was the recognition of new members to the Society of St. Peter, which recognizes those who have supported the Catholic Foundation of East Tennessee for at least 20 years.
Jim and Melinda Ethier, parishioners of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Bob and Jean Fox of All Saints Parish, were presented St. Peter icons by Bishop Stika at the dinner in Knoxville on Nov. 7.
Mr. Edward DeBoer of St. Jude Parish was presented with an icon at the Chattanooga dinner on Nov. 11.
In addition to Bishop Stika and Father Floersh, priests attending at least one of the dinners this year were: Father David Carter, pastor and rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga; Father Michael Cummins, pastor of St. Dominic in Kingsport; Father Michael Hendershott, associate pastor of Holy Ghost in Knoxville; Father Valentin Iurochkin, IVE, parochial vicar for the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul; Father Michael Nolan, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland; Father Tim Sullivan, CSP, associate pastor of Immaculate Conception in Knoxville; and Father Michael Woods, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade.
Deacons attending were: Deacon and Mrs. Hicks Armor, Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano, Deacon Frank Fischer and Dr. Judy Fischer, Deacon and Mrs. Joe Hartz, Deacon and Mrs. Robert J. Lange, Deacon and Mrs. David J. Lucheon, Deacon and Mrs. Barry Maples, Deacon and Mrs. Robert Rust, and Deacon and Mrs. Sean K. Smith. Deacon Smith is chancellor of the Diocese of Knoxville.
A total of 100 foundation members attended this year’s dinners. Bishop Stika has indicated he’d like to continue holding the annual appreciation dinners at locations around the diocese in future years.