By Bill Brewer
It seems like just yesterday when a standing-room-only congregation gathered at 711 S. Northshore Drive in Knoxville to finally see the result from decades of prayer, thought, and planning: the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In a ceremony 30 years in the making, Bishop Richard F. Stika dedicated and consecrated the sparkling new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on March 3, 2018. A gathering of more than 1,000 witnessed the historic Mass that capped a three-year construction project and a three-decade-long dream.
Five cardinals, 18 bishops, 106 priests, 58 deacons, and 39 men and women religious took part in the three-hour dedication Mass along with more than 800 East Tennessee Catholics and invited guests.
Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, archbishop emeritus of Krakow, Poland, and longtime personal secretary to Pope St. John Paul II; Cardinal William Levada, prefect emeritus of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York; Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and then the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia and a Knoxville resident, all were part of the dedication, along with Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio to the United States.
Bishop Stika marked the cathedral’s fifth anniversary during a March 3 Mass attended by Sacred Heart Cathedral School students. Concelebrating the Mass was cathedral rector Father David Boettner, who led the cathedral construction project from inception to dedication.
“Every time I come into the cathedral, I’m just in awe of the artwork, the beauty, the serenity, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the whole thing,” Bishop Stika said. “Five years ago was a spectacular moment. But the work in the cathedral, the ministry, the sacraments will be celebrated for many, many, many years. I think that’s pretty good,” Bishop Stika said.
Despite the immense amount of planning and work that went into building the cathedral, Bishop Stika said it continues to be a work in progress.
“Slowly, we’re going to evaluate more artwork over the years. Cathedrals are never finished,” he said. “It’s everything I wanted it to be. And I think it’s everything the diocese wanted it to be, something noble. It’s not ostentatious, but it’s not simple either. I think it has that perfect balance.”
Bishop Stika credited the cathedral team for helping turn a dream often prayed for into reality
“We were very smart when we built the cathedral. Father David and his team, with the acoustics, with the music, with the organ—the cathedral parish does just a fantastic job in terms of worship. That’s what a cathedral is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be the example for the rest of the parishes on how liturgy should be done appropriately. This is an excellent place for that,” Bishop Stika noted.
As the anniversary approached, Father Boettner said he was almost in disbelief that five years has already gone by.
“As I was in Mass (on the fifth anniversary), I noticed the sunlight coming through the windows and dancing off the back of the sanctuary wall. It reminded me of what a joyful celebration we had that day and what a great celebration of the unity of the Diocese of Knoxville.”
Father Boettner said the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus has exceeded his expectations.
“We knew we were building something that we wanted to be permanent, transcendent, beautiful, something that really gave honor and glory to God,” he said. “I’ll never forget the first time once we really started putting the walls up inside the cathedral. We had looked at it through virtual reality glasses. We had these 3D programs where we tried to imagine what it would look like, but when you actually stand in the middle of the cathedral and feel that divine presence, it’s just overwhelming. It’s awe-inspiring.”
Father Boettner also recalled the site preparation that went into the project in preparation for construction.
The Sacred Heart campus was transformed, even as Masses continued to be celebrated in the original church building and Sacred Heart Cathedral School continued to hold classes.
“Our newer north parking lot used to be a mountain. We moved a mountain in order to build this cathedral,” Father Boettner recalled. “I always remember when Jesus talked to us, he said ‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain be transplanted, and it will move.’ The faith of this commuity, the faith of the diocese is what made this happen. That’s why one of my favorite pieces of artwork in the cathedral is the benefactors’ niche because it is the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. When we bring what we have to the Lord, and give it to Him and allow Him to bless it, He exceeds our wildest expectations.”
Relics in the new cathedral altar are those of popes Clement, Pius X, John XXIII, and John Paul II, Bishop Stika said, who noted there are relics of martyrs like Andrew the Apostle, Blessed Stanley Rother of Oklahoma City, and Maria Goretti, and other men and women who taught and lived the faith that we profess and share.
Also present is a relic of the true cross of Christ, donated by Cardinal Rigali.
Cardinal Dziwisz blessed a statue of Pope St. John Paul II, co-patron of the Diocese of Knoxville, at the cathedral’s south entrance. The Polish cardinal also donated two relics of the saint to the diocese: a stole frequently worn by John Paul II and a first-class relic containing drops of the saint’s blood. Cardinal Dziwisz wore the stole while blessing the statue.
Bishop Stika announced plans for the new cathedral in September 2014. The bishop operated a Caterpillar backhoe to break ground on the cathedral on April 19, 2015.
Pope Francis blessed the dedication stone for the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Oct. 14, 2015, during a papal audience at the Vatican attended by Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali.
The new cathedral replaced Sacred Heart Cathedral, built in 1955 and opened in 1956. Sacred Heart served as a parish church from Jan. 1, 1956, until Pope St. John Paul II established the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988 and then elevated Sacred Heart to a cathedral.
The old cathedral building was converted into Sacred Heart’s fellowship hall.