By Jim Wogan
It took longer than expected, but parishioners of St. John XXIII last month finally marked the 50th anniversary of their parish’s dedication—52 years after it happened.
The COVID pandemic stalled the original plans for the Catholic community’s jubilee by two years, but the delay didn’t mask the enthusiasm for those who attended a dinner gathering on April 8.
The dinner was officially titled “50th Anniversary, Take Two.”
“Two years ago, everything was set, and we were going to have this big celebration,” said Father Don Andrie, CSP, pastor of St. John XXIII. “Then in the middle of March 2020 everything shut down. We said, well if things work out for 2021, we could celebrate 51 years as a parish, but it just kept going.”
By the spring of 2022, COVID was starting to wane and restrictions on parish celebrations were lifted by Bishop Richard F. Stika. That’s when John XXIII party-planners jumped into action to make the golden anniversary gathering happen this year.
“This is the largest parish event since coming back (from COVID),” Father Andrie said. “We did start last fall with a turkey bingo. We had a lot of students and young adults, but not too many of our older parishioners because they were still being careful back then. We also did our Mardi Gras, which had a lot of students and almost no parishioners. This is the first gathering with a large number of parishioners coming back again.”
Golden anniversaries are a big deal, even though this year’s celebration was the 52nd anniversary marking the parish’s dedication Mass in April 1970, celebrated by then-Bishop Joseph A. Durick. John XXIII, like all East Tennessee parishes, was in the Diocese of Nashville back then.
The parish has been led by the Paulist Fathers since 1973.
Moving the golden anniversary to a new date—two years down the road, forced more than a few adjustments.
Father Andrie pointed out that Father Bob O’Donnell, CSP, had purchased two large, helium-filled gold balloons—a 5 and a 0, to highlight the 50th anniversary back in 2020.
“They gradually started to deflate. So, we had to get new ones for this celebration,” Father Andrie said with a laugh.
St. John XXIII is a unique parish in the Diocese of Knoxville. It is situated in the heart of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus, which means it attracts many young, college-aged worshipers at Masses and other parish events. It also has a well-established and dedicated group of full-time members who make sure the parish operates in the way of a traditional parish.
The dinner celebration included a video presentation by Dr. John Prados, a professor emeritus of the University of Tennessee and a founding member of John XXIII.
Its history dates to the establishment of a Newman Club on the UTK campus in the 1930s. By the 1950s, a Catholic center was in place. Ground was broken in 1968 for the current church building.
Father Charlie Donahue, CSP, was appointed pastor of the parish in 2009 when the canonization process for Pope John XXIII was moving forward. The parish was then known as Blessed John XXIII. A few years later, when Father Donahue left for another Paulist assignment in 2014, the church had been re-named St. John XXIII to reflect the elevation of the Holy Father as canonized in the Catholic Church.
Father Donahue returned to Knoxville last year to become pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish. He has fond memories of leading the John XXIII Parish and attended the belated 50th anniversary celebration.
“The university-parish model, when introduced, was kind of an experiment,” Father Donahue said. “It has been a very successful model, as its flourishing can attest.
“The late Dr. Ruth Queen Smith was instrumental in lay leadership and evangelization during a crucial time for John XXIII. She helped acclimate the FOCUS team, before, during, and after their arrival. The model of mutual support she built is still in use today,” he added.
FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, has a presence on the UTK campus through the St. John XXIII Parish as well as at the Catholic Center on the UT-Chattanooga campus.
In addition to Father Andrie and Father Donahue, other clergy attendees at the celebration included Bishop Stika, Father Richard Whitney, CSP, associate pastor of St. John XXIII, Father O’Donnell, and Deacon Patrick Murphy-Racey.
Bishop Stika shared time with college students and young adults in attendance, as well as older, more established parishioners who, in many cases, have a direct connection to the establishment of John XXIII as a parish.
“Some of the original parishioners, obviously they have brought a lot to this parish, and we always minister to them and appreciate their leadership here,” Bishop Stika said. “The history you see here tonight, the displays with photos and documents, some of the people who are here wrote those words and took those pictures, they have lived the life of this parish.
“Then you have the students. And yes, sometimes there can be differences, but there is a wonderful positivity to a parish like this. There is a blending that takes place. The students who are here during the school year, and the permanent parishioners who are around all year, both are vital to the life of this parish. I am so pleased that the Paulist Fathers are here because they have a lot of experience working on college campuses and managing a parish like this. Their leadership is so important.”
Next year, St. John XXIII will celebrate its 53rd anniversary just a year after celebrating its golden anniversary. It’s a unique distinction for one of the diocese’s unique parishes.