New St. John Paul II Catholic Mission building serves Grainger County faith community
By Dan McWilliams
When Bishop Richard F. Stika dedicated the new church building for St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge on May 29, he shared his personal connection with its namesake pope.
The bishop was wearing a Pope St. John Paul II Totus Tuus vestment for the occasion, which was attended by some 150 of the faithful as they filled the new worship space on Memorial Day weekend.
“Coming together this day, I have been waiting for this for a long time,” he said. “In my short life of 65 years, I had the privilege of meeting St. John Paul probably 10 or 12 times, so I’m thinking about that and all those moments. I was at his beatification and his canonization, so this is very, very dear to my heart. This vestment actually came from Poland. It was given to me by some Sisters.”
Bishop Stika blessed the altar and walls in the new building at 161 Bryan Road at the corner of Rutledge Pike, praying, “Sanctify therefore with your blessing this water You have created, that, sprinkled on us and on the walls of this church dedicated to St. John Paul, it may be a sign of the cleansing waters of salvation in which we have been cleansed in Christ and made a temple of Your Spirit.”
St. John Paul II pastor Father Neil Pezzulo and Father Chet Artysiewicz, both Glenmary fathers, concelebrated the Mass. Father Artysiewicz is with the Glenmary Home Missioners development office and was president of Glenmary when St. John Paul II Mission and its sister parish St. Teresa of Kolkata in Maynardville were created more than a decade ago. Deacon Larry Rossini assisted at Mass, and Deacon Walt Otey was master of ceremonies. Glenmary Brother Joe Steen, who designed the new church and helped build it, was in attendance.
Glenmary Father Steve Pawelk, the founding pastor of the Rutledge and Maynardville communities, who is now serving as director of the Glenmary novitiate in Cincinnati, was remembered by Bishop Stika at the Mass.
“One of the great decisions I’ve made in my life as a bishop was to say yes to the Glenmary community when they wanted to come back to the diocese,” Bishop Stika said. “Because of their work and their ambition and their dedication, we now have two new parishes and this mission: we have St. Michael the Archangel [in Erwin] and St. Teresa of Kolkata and now the mission of St. John Paul.”
As a successor of the Apostles, Bishop Stika said that “because of their work so many centuries ago, we’re in Rutledge, Tenn., dedicating a church under the title of St. John Paul.”
The bishop referred to the mission’s previous location, a storefront church nearby across Rutledge Pike.
“You miss that, don’t you?” he said, drawing laughter. “The early Church met in caves and houses.”
Bishop Stika was a priest in his native St. Louis when Pope John Paul II came to that city.
“When he came to St. Louis, his last visit to the United States, in 1999, I was in charge of the visit. I also got kicked out of my room for two days. I had to sleep on a recliner while he enjoyed my bed,” the bishop recalled.
“One of the most powerful things that St. John Paul said was early on at his inauguration as pope in 1979,” Bishop Stika continued. “You know what he said? ‘Be not afraid.’”
The bishop exhorted his Grainger County listeners with the same words.
“Be not afraid to be a follower of Jesus. Be not afraid to teach other people about the faith by your example. Be not afraid to grow in your spirituality, to take the Scriptures and make them living in your lives. Be not afraid to teach others by your witness, by how you choose to live your lives. Be not afraid in those moments of doubt—is God really listening to me?”
In his homily, Bishop Stika mentioned that the statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph inside the mission church came from the former St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville. The many wood items around the altar were built from pews that were at the old Sacred Heart Cathedral.
The bishop also said he has a 3 1/2-foot statue of St. John Paul II that was carved in Italy that he plans to give to the Rutledge faithful, but it was stuck on a cargo ship somewhere.
“You know what that means? I’ll have to come back and bless that statue,” he said.
Bishop Stika went on to mention two relics.
“I also have another gift. Altars of a church have a relic of a saint. I’m going to give you a relic of St. John Paul for public veneration, but in this altar will be a relic of St. Pius X, who was pope from 1903 to 1914,” he said.
The bishop concluded his homily by saying, “to the Glenmary community and to all of you, I’m glad you took up the banner of St. John Paul, because you’re not afraid to build this house of worship, this church, and you have not been afraid to teach the faith by witnessing to Jesus publicly.”
At the end of Mass, Bishop Stika recalled Pope John Paul II’s Mass before 120,000 people in the Trans World Dome in St. Louis on Jan. 27, 1999—and a dramatic moment.
“He raises the chalice, and thousands and thousands of flash bulbs—remember those?—went off, and in the photograph it’s most special: as he raised the chalice, the reflection of the gold took in the flashbulbs, and in his hand he held the sun. In the photo, it looks like he’s holding the sun,” the bishop remembered.
Bishop Stika also told of a story from the sainted pope’s latter days, when he was in ill health.
“This bishop he had known a long time said, ‘Holy Father, I feel so sad. This will likely be the last time I see you.’ And John Paul replied to the bishop, ‘Why, are you sick?’” Bishop Stika said. “It just shows the character of John Paul. He never gave up. He always trusted in Jesus. He spent hours and hours before the Blessed Sacrament. I witnessed that in St. Louis. He loved Jesus.”
Bishop Stika closed by thanking Glenmary Home Missioners, the Catholic Foundation of East Tennessee—which purchased the property for the church in Rutledge in 2013—as well as veterans in the assembly. A nod to Brother Joe for his contributions drew a round of applause.
After Mass, the bishop spoke of special liturgies, including ordinations, such as the triple ordination of transitional deacons he celebrated later in the day following the Rutledge Mass.
“Mass is always the same: the sacrifice of Jesus. But there are certain celebrations that encircle the Mass. Ordinations like I’ll do this afternoon, ordinations to the diaconate or priesthood. I’ve had a couple Masses now of consecrated virgins. I just celebrated Mass for the Handmaids of the Precious Blood,” he said. “But there’s something unique also about the dedication of a church. This is a simple dedication, because, God willing, someday they’ll have another, larger church. But it’s still the same thing—this is a house of worship, this is Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament, and so it really touches my heart.”
The ordination of transitional deacons took place at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, parts of whose original building live on at St. John Paul II Mission.
“I think today in a special way, knowing that when I go home later this afternoon and go to the cathedral, where I’ll ordain deacons, in some ways the cathedral is the mother church—and it’s present here,” Bishop Stika said. “So much of the cathedral pews and other wood in the [old] cathedral are now the altar and the ambo and the future baptismal font and some of the wood in the sanctuary. It’s that connection to the mother church.”
The bishop spoke of the Rutledge mission’s chances of becoming a full parish.
“Soon, soon,” he said. “We’ve got to look at the financials, and they have to petition for that, so we’ll see. God willing, soon.”
Father Pezzulo talked of the immigrant community at St. John Paul II, referring not just to its thriving Hispanic population, on the dedication day.
“What makes it special for this particular community is, most of this community is not from here—they’re all immigrants. And even the English-speaking members are really not from Grainger County,” he said. “So here we’ve built a permanent place to call our home, a place to come and offer praise and thanksgiving, a place to gather as a community of Catholics, and not only just for us, but we’re really laying the foundation for future generations to come.”
Father Pezzulo spoke of the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. At different stages of the construction, workers were asked what they were doing. Early on, one worker said he was “building a wall.” Later, a worker told one who questioned him, “I’m building a church.” Finally, the question was asked of a worker, and he said, “I’m building a future.”
“I think that’s what we’re doing here: building a future,” Father Pezzulo said. “During the Mass, my prayer isn’t so much, ‘What does John Paul II Church look like in 2022, but what about 2032 or ’42?’”
The bishop’s visit was notable, the pastor said.
“It’s always special because it reminds people, because we’re kind of isolated up in this area, that we are connected to a larger Church,” Father Pezzulo said. “Sometimes we forget that, because most of our day-to-day interactions are with the Methodists and the Baptists and us, and we get along very well and work together very well in town and forget that as Catholics we’re part of a larger Church.”
Father Pezzulo said the new church cost about $350,000 to $400,000 and was built by the parishioners themselves. The building covers 5,800 square feet. The project, Father Pezzulo stated in the Mass program, is debt free, “truly another blessing,” he wrote.
He spoke of his favorite feature of the new church.
“The thing I love the most about it is the patio—which is an odd thing for a priest to say—because it lends itself to hospitality,” he said. “It flows from the sanctuary to the patio, so the celebration flows from the table of the Lord to continue to share at another table. The whole design of the building lends itself to groups and hospitality. Because it’s a multi-use space, we can rearrange furniture as we need to. The St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic comes here once a month, and they’ve got a couple of rooms they can talk to people in private in. It just lends itself to that mission as well. And we can open it up to the town to have meetings and gatherings.”
Father Pezzulo talked about some local visitors who came to the dedication.
“Today, we had a handful of people from the Methodist church. One of the men singing in the choir is a member of Buffalo Baptist Church. The Baptist pastor stopped in right before Mass to drop off some flowers. He couldn’t change his service time, but he would have been here any other time. We’ve already gathered once here as a town, during Lent, to have a prayer service and a meal. We invited the whole town in,” he said.
The two largest benefactors of the new church choose to remain anonymous, Father Pezzulo said.
“I couldn’t have done it without them. I couldn’t have done it without Glenmary’s support,” he said.
Tom Charron helped Brother Joe build the new church.
“I volunteered to help build this, and me and Brother Joe worked our tails off,” he said. “I got most of the materials for the beginning stages really reasonable, but with COVID all the prices went sky-high, so we were scrambling everywhere trying to get prices on stuff.”
Mr. Charron was glad to see dedication day come.
“It was very good. I’m so happy. We worked getting everything straightened out and finished up at the last minute,” he said.
That included heat-and-air ducts that run down the sides of the worship space, ducts that are now well concealed and have lighting to illuminate the ceiling.
“We had to put in two heat-and-air units so we could have heat and air on both sides. When we did that we had to build all these huge ducts to make that work,” Mr. Charron said. “Now that’s framed in with steel, and I did extra to get the lighting up on top to wash the ceiling, just to make it brighter in here, to light up the whole ceiling.”
Mr. Charron had to perform repair work on the statues from St. Mary’s Hospital.
“The Blessed Mother got dropped, and her base was broken off. I repainted both statues. I patched up the Blessed Mother and had to put a new finger on St. Joseph and a toe. I did it all with plaster and horsehair and painted them up. They both came out beautiful,” he said.
Mr. Charron built the credence table for the new church, “and Brother Joe and I framed it and built everything, painting and all the patching and drywall. I put the kitchen in and did the bathrooms while he was doing other things. We just worked on everything together,” he said.
Brother Joe recalled the “team effort” that went into building the church, with help coming from the Glenmary volunteer program on Grainger County’s Joppa Mountain, known as “Toppa Joppa.”
“There was a team of us that got together, this was back when Father Steve [Pawelk, GHM] was pastor here, and got it organized and drew up plans,” Brother Joe said. “All different types of folks have been involved in the project, even from our sister parish over in Maynardville, and then we had volunteers from the Glenmary program up at Toppa Joppa, and then we’ve had volunteers come from places like Wisconsin and Iowa to work on the church also and lots of local folks, too. It was really a team effort.”
The Glenmary brother said he worked mainly “on the design and general construction and getting materials and those kinds of things.”
The new church seats officially just under 150, he said.
“Those doors in the back can open if we ever get an overflow crowd. People can be sitting out in the pavilion. You could probably add another 100 back there if we had to,” he said.
Brother Joe said he is “always happy to see a church finished.”
“But it’s really how the building is used—that’s the most important thing,” he said. “It’s nice to have the building done, but it’s how much it really reaches out to the community, because that’s what the Church is all about.”