St. Alphonsus breaks ground on new church

Crossville parish’s building project begins after years of planning and fundraising

By Dan McWilliams

“ . . . I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it.”1 Corinthians 3:10

Bishop Richard F. Stika looks up as the groundbreaking begins Dec. 3 at St. Alphonsus Church in Crossville. With him (from left) are Justin Diehl, Deacon Peter Minneci, Father Christopher Floersh, Father Mark Schuster, Deacon Sean Smith, Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, Father Michael Woods, Dr. Sabina Coronado Massey, and architect Phil Adams and Josh Stites of J&S Construction.

St. Alphonsus Parish in Crossville took a major step toward its dream of a new church building on Dec. 3 as Bishop Richard F. Stika and parochial administrator Father Mark Schuster officiated at a groundbreaking ceremony.

Parishioners have been patiently waiting and saving money for more than 18 years since their parish life center, which is their current church meeting space, was dedicated in May 2003. Their dream has been going on “for so long to build a worthy church,” Bishop Stika said. “They have a beautiful parish hall, a parish center, but every weekend they have to convert it, move chairs around. This shows the growth of this community and the diocese, and it’s so special for me to be here.”

Father Schuster came on board as the leader of St. Alphonsus and its 400 families this past summer, succeeding pastor Father Jim Harvey, and immediately became immersed in the building project.

“I think they planned on building this church about 18 years ago. It’s just been going in different increments,” he said. “When I was told I was assigned to come up here, they said, ‘You’re going to build a church,’ and they were already in process. When I got here, they were well on their way.

“Talking to the contractors, they were saying that they first got a plan back in 2019, but because of COVID it really shut things down. So I have inherited this to see it through to fruition. It’s been quite a learning experience, but the people here who are part of the building committee and the fundraising committee are very driven, they know it inside and out, so just to work with them was very easy actually, but I’m playing a little bit of catchup.”

Also attending the groundbreaking were former St. Alphonsus pastor Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, now pastor of St. Mary in Gatlinburg; Father Michael Woods, pastor of neighboring parish St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade; Father Christopher Floersh, diocesan director of vocations; architect Phil Adams of J&S Construction in Cookeville and J&S officials; several committee members, including Charleen McMahan, chair of the parish pastoral council, and John Gray and Angelo Farrugia, co-chairs of the building committee; Dr. Sabina Coronado Massey of the building committee; Knights of Columbus; and numerous parishioners.

Deacon Sean Smith, diocesan chancellor, and Deacon Peter Minneci of St. Alphonsus assisted the bishop and Father Schuster at the groundbreaking.

Architect Phil Adams of J&S Construction in Cookeville has designed a single-story church for St. Alphonsus, which he says will have “a wonderful worship sanctuary with a nice foyer, enough seating for 300, 350 people.”

Remembered during the ceremony were former pastors who have moved on to other assignments as well as former parishioners, many now deceased, who contributed to the building project but could not be present for the groundbreaking.

“One generation builds upon the other. We always have to remember those people who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, as the Church says, and we’re grateful for that,” Bishop Stika said. “And I’ll mention that when I dedicate the church, hopefully in August.”

Architect Mr. Adams said the new church will be 7,770 square feet and will cost $2,216,000. The church will sit in front of the parish life center.

“We have a wonderful worship sanctuary with a nice foyer, enough seating for 300, 350 people—it’s going to make a single-use facility,” he said. “They’ve had a facility, which has been a multi-use facility for a number of years, and they wanted an area where they could just worship alone, so it’s just going to be a wonderful facility for that.”

The square footage will approach 8,000 with the presence of a covered porch, or portico, Mr. Adams said.

“It’s going to have a cupola on the roof. It’s got a bell tower with an actual bell that they can use, which is pretty cool, a pull-bell that someone’s donating to them,” he said.

Having their own worship space is key for St. Alphonsus parishioners, Father Schuster said as he pointed toward the Crossville Catholics’ former church across Sparta Drive from the current property on St. Alphonsus Way. The Sparta Drive church served the parish until 2003, when the parish life center was dedicated.

“They first began way over there, the old parish down the way, which they sold,” Father Schuster said. “We have the multipurpose room that we celebrate all of our liturgies in, but it’s important for the growth of this parish to have a separate, permanent worship space so that [multipurpose] room can actually turn into something else for communal gatherings.”

Bishop Richard F. Stika sprinkles holy water on the site where the new St. Alphonsus Church building will stand. Assisting him is Justin Diehl of the Knights of Columbus.

Father Schuster said “the different things going on with COVID, inflation, the increasing cost for materials have affected the overall price, but we’ve been very diligent to make sure that we have something that we can afford. We’ve been in a fundraising program right now. We already had a large amount of money saved that they’ve been saving for years. The fundraising, we’re really close to meeting our pledge goal. We’re six months into a three-year fundraising program, so everybody has really generously responded.”

There is already a target date for the completion of the new church building.

“They are telling me that once they break ground, they’re looking at six months,” Father Schuster said. “We would love it if it was six months, because that means there’s a possibility we could be here on the feast of St. Alphonsus, Aug. 1. We just want to make sure it’s done correctly.”

Before nearly 20 people took up shovels for the groundbreaking, Bishop Stika and Father Schuster led a prayer service, and the bishop blessed the grounds.

“It’s a wonderful day that many of you have been waiting a whole lot longer for than I have, but it’s so great to be here with you to begin this physical process of building our new permanent worship space, on a great feast day of St. Francis Xavier, a missionary who brought the Word to all the world,” Father Schuster said.

St. Alphonsus’ parish shepherd thanked “all the parishioners, because without your support, without your generosity, for the last 18 years, we wouldn’t have had this day. Even those who rest in peace over in our columbarium who were part of this process for so long, we’re thankful for their determination and their continued prayers for this as we continue to build this beautiful church that we’ll worship in for 50 to 100 years, please God longer. May we grow, may we expand and one day think, ‘We might need to build a church because this chapel is getting too small for us.’”

Bishop Stika said at the groundbreaking that he came to St. Alphonsus some eight or nine years before and heard of some parishioners “who wanted to convert the present hall into a church, and I said no because it wouldn’t have looked like a church. It would look like a hall that you have converted. In my conversations with Father Mark, you know, a church is supposed to elevate our sense of God. It’s not supposed to be only a functional building. It’s supposed to look like a church and feel like a church. And as I see the architectural drawings and talk to Father Mark and others on the committee, I think it’s going to be a beautiful edifice.”

A relic of St. Alphonsus may be part of the new church, the bishop said.

“I’m working on getting a relic of the patron saint of this parish,” he said. “Eventually we’ll have to put the relics in the altar, but this one could be more for public veneration, too. He’s a great Redemptorist saint and a great missionary. I might also get a clip of Father Schuster’s hair, just in case in the future, because building a church, you’ve got to be a saint and a sinner sometimes.”

Bishop Stika called the groundbreaking “a beautiful moment, and this parish is spectacular with the food pantry and all the works of mercy and kindness and charity.”

The bishop thanked Father Schuster as well as former pastors Father Harvey, Father Punnackal, Father Patrick Brownell, and Father Mike Roark.

“We thank all those pastors who have brought us to this moment,” Bishop Stika said.

As chair of the pastoral council, Ms. McMahan said the fundraising effort that was kickstarted in 2019, two and a half years ago, has brought the parish “to this point.”

“We are absolutely delighted,” she said. “One of the most important outcomes is I believe that we’ve come together as a parish community to make this happen. We’ve been 18 years in the making. We have many parishioners who have donated toward the realization of the building vision for this campus who are no longer with us. We have parishioners who have been part of the original group that brought us from across the street to our current campus and built the parish life center, and they have been waiting for this for many, many years.”

Bishop Stika stands with (from left) Deacon Sean Smith, Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, Father Mark Schuster, Father Michael Woods, Deacon Peter Minneci, and Father Christopher Floersh on the St. Alphonsus property. The parish life center now used as a worship space by St. Alphonsus may be seen in the background.

The building effort had many voices, she said.

“We had a lot of different opinions about how we should move forward and build a church for this parish. I think our process has brought us to coalesce on this option,” she said.

Another important point arose in the fundraising process, Ms. McMahan noted.

“It was critical to the success of this project that we not incur any long-term debt,” she said. “The fundraising has been long and arduous. As we’ve moved this project application forward, the parish has responded and is putting us over the goal line. We still have a distance to go, but we are at like the last two inches. The building will be paid for when the doors are open—well, close.”

Mr. Gray and Mr. Farrugia, co-chairs of the building committee, “were originally co-chairs of the feasibility task force and developed and distilled the options for a church for this parish down to this option,” Ms. McMahan said. “They led the design process to get to the detailed designs, and now they are transitioning to the building committee, and they will see the project through to its conclusion.”

Mr. Gray said that “it’s been a long two and a half years. We started two and a half years ago planning this. We started with a task force to see if it was viable to build a new church, and from there we moved on. We’ve got the plans, and now we’re at the building stage.”

Father Mark Schuster, parochial administrator of St. Alphonsus, speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony as Bishop Stika listens at left.

He added that “since the formation of the task force committee by Father Jim Harvey, Charlie Spadaro, and Charleen McMahan in March of 2019, we worked continuously to reach our goal of a new worship space. We came together as one team working with various other committees, such as the fundraising committee headed by Frank Casale, finance council headed by Bill Schmich, parish pastoral council headed by Charleen McMahan, task force administrator Janet Gray, and the church administration, Karen Otuonye, business and finance director.

“We also received much guidance and input from Father Michael Sweeney, pastor of Blessed Sacrament in Harriman, and Father Patrick Brownell, former pastor at St. Alphonsus Church, and our new pastor, Father Mark Schuster, who brought us over the finish line to this point.”

Mr. Farrugia called the process “a long, uphill battle, but we’re almost on top of the hill right now. Hopefully, everything will go according to plan, and in less than a year we’ll have a new worship place.”

Father Punnackal was pastor of St. Alphonsus in the early 2000s for about three and a half years.

“We were finalizing the funds for [the new church]. When I left, we had more than $700,000 we already collected,” he said. “It’s a blessing, and we are hoping for it. This church needs a physical place, not just a building but a worshiping place. They have fulfilled it. They have done it. They deserve it. They need it, and God’s blessings always with them.”

Readers wishing to contribute to the St. Alphonsus building fund may mail their donations to St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, 151 St. Alphonsus Way, Crossville, TN 38555. They may contribute electronically by visiting Select the Online Giving tab, then click the Give Now box and look for “Building Fund.” For more information, call the parish at (931) 484-2358.

“It’s going to be a beautiful building,” Bishop Stika said. “They have an excellent building committee. Father Schuster has been working with them and the architects. I give a little guidance as the bishop. It’s going to be worthy of St. Alphonsus.”

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