Catholic Charities marks anniversary of devastating fire

Work continues to renovate agency’s offices near downtown Knoxville

By Bill Brewer

More than a year after an arsonist broke into Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s offices near downtown Knoxville and set a fire that destroyed much of the building, the social services agency is looking forward to moving back into its facility this year.

Renovation on the one-story building is continuing as workers replace the roof structure and construct new offices for the Diocese of Knoxville ministry that serves more than 3,000 people annually across East Tennessee.

Lisa Healy, Catholic Charities executive director, said while authorities have been unable to identify a suspect in the Nov. 28, 2021, blaze at 119 Dameron Ave., the agency’s focus continues to be making sure all services for its clients are operating uninterrupted.

The fire occurred at the end of Thanksgiving weekend. Police discovered it when responding to an alarm at the building shortly before midnight. Firefighters recovered a gasoline can and a matchbook near the window the perpetrator broke to gain entry. Fire gutted much of the building’s interior, and there was extensive smoke and water damage. The interior was deemed a total loss.

CCETN was forced to relocate its administrative offices and several programs, including the Pregnancy Help Center, to the Regas Building on North Gay Street in downtown Knoxville immediately after the fire.

Lisa Healy, Catholic Charities executive director, second from left, surveys work on the building with, from left, Michelle Barillaro of Rouse Construction, Christina Fehr Brooks of George Armour Ewart Architect, and Darrell Roach of Rouse Construction.

The arson occurred at an especially challenging time for Catholic Charities, which was in the process of introducing new programs, including expansion of its pregnancy assistance work and a new partnership with Covenant Homecare for respite care for the homeless at CCETN’s Samaritan Place facility.

All the programs got underway despite the logistical difficulties.

“[The fire] hasn’t impeded our operations. I feel like we’ve really excelled at servicing our clients. It’s really beyond business as usual because we’ve opened new business,” Mrs. Healy said.

While Catholic Charities has been grateful to have quality office space in which to relocate that is relatively near its Dameron Avenue building, it is not home.

“It’s quite a bit less space at the Regas Building. Some of our services are limited, like our in-house pregnancy testing. We can’t do that until we’re back in our building,” Mrs. Healy said.

Mrs. Healy is proud of the work her staff has done under trying circumstances, all of which is targeted to East Tennessee residents in need of social services.

Workers with Rouse Construction replace the roof structure for Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Knoxville administrative building. The building was seriously damaged by an arson fire in November 2021.

The arson didn’t keep Catholic Charities from opening critical ministries in an underserved part of East Tennessee and for mothers and fathers considering adoption.

“We renovated and opened the Helenwood Pregnancy Center in Scott County to serve people who really need that assistance. It allowed us to create more active partnerships with our partners in the diocese, like the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic,” Mrs. Healy said.

“And we opened adoption services in the diocese,” she added.

In July, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee Adoption Services officially launched, and the program is available to parents considering adoption to grow their families as well as expectant mothers who are considering placing a child for adoption.

It is the first time in nearly 10 years that adoption services are again available by a Catholic organization in East Tennessee.

Adoption isn’t the only way Catholic Charities is assisting children.

The Diocese of Knoxville social services agency opened the CoHo Safe Place for Kids as part of its Columbus Home Children’s Shelter and Assessment Center program. The Children’s Emergency Shelter and Assessment Center provided 245 bed nights to children in distress in the last year.

A workers installs electrical systems inside the Catholic Charities building, which is expected to reopen this year.

“We’ve addressed some of the needs for the children of Knox County with our Safe Place for Kids. This is a temporary shelter that [Department of Children Services] utilizes when they have children in custody. It houses children when they aren’t in school. It’s a full-service children’s shelter with resources for studying, tutoring, recreation, as well as food, clothing, showers, clean linens and towels, and laundry services,” Mrs. Healy explained.

“We try to be helpful in providing a safe place for children who are navigating juvenile court and DCS,” she added.

And then there are the existing CCETN programs that are continuing unabated, such as the annual holiday celebration in rural Campbell County.

“We still did Christmas for the kids at the Crazy Quilt facility in Newcomb, where we provide food and toys for over 200 families,” Mrs. Healy pointed out. “And we provided over 200 meals in Western Heights with Hope Kitchen.”

Western Heights is a lower-income community in Knoxville’s inner city.

Another example of CCETN’s growing social services portfolio, according to Mrs. Healy, is the Columbus Home Assisting Parents (CHAP) program, which is a home-based parent education and support service that provides parenting education, crisis intervention, and case management for families that experience life stressors that impact parenting abilities. The CHAP services are provided free of charge to parents.

Workers install framing for walls inside the Catholic Charities building, which is expected to reopen this year.

The Catholic Charities staff is looking forward to moving back into its Dameron Avenue building.

“We expect to finish the renovation no later than June,” Mrs. Healy said. “We’re creating a space that will provide client services, adoption, pregnancy help, and the office of immigration. The back part of the building will be our administrative offices.”

Not returning to Dameron Avenue hasn’t been a consideration, according to Catholic Charities’ executive director.

“We think it’s very important to continue using that building for client services. We’re across the street from the Knox County Health Department, and we’re on a bus line. We’ve been in that building since the 1980s, and people know where we’re located,” she noted.

And while insurance is covering most of the cost for the fire renovation, it doesn’t cover everything.

Catholic Charities is hoping to raise funds for building needs not covered by insurance, such as a perimeter fence, supplies for the Pregnancy Help Center, supplies for the new ultrasound clinic that will be in the building as part of the Pregnancy Help Center, and landscaping.

Anyone interested in making a donation to Catholic Charities of East Tennessee can go to the CCETN website,, or call 865-524-9896.

Mrs. Healy is looking forward to the fruitful return of another Catholic Charities ministry that was halted due to the fire.

“In May, we’ll be replanting our community garden as well,” she said.

Catholic Charities employees partner with their Dameron Avenue-area neighbors in growing a vegetable garden on the CCETN property each season. The neighbors help take care of the garden and are the recipients of its free produce.

It’s yet another CCETN activity that everyone involved enjoys, takes pride in, and feels a deep sense of making a difference in people’s lives.

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