On the road with Father Ryan

Movie on priest gains international acclaim, available for showing

By Dan McWilliams

Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul member Jack Pettigrew, center, who portrayed Father Patrick Ryan in the new movie “Father Ryan: A Higher Call,” is pictured with Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano, left, and Father David Carter at the movie’s May 6 showing at Knoxville Catholic High School.

The people behind the movie “Father Ryan: A Higher Call” took the film about the heroic Chattanooga priest and candidate for sainthood on the road with showings at Knoxville Catholic High School on May 6 and St. Mary Church in Johnson City on June 2.

It is hoped that the film, which premiered at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga on April 15, will lead to more devotions to Father Patrick Ryan and possibly favors and especially miracles granted by him to further his cause for sainthood.

Two parishioners of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga created the film, the husband-and-wife team of Mark Aramian, the producer, and Veronica DiPippo, the writer, director, and narrator. The future basilica parish was where Servant of God Father Ryan (1844-1878) served until his death, which came as he was ministering to victims of the yellow-fever epidemic that swept Chattanooga in the late 1870s.

Basilica rector Father David Carter, who appears in the 48-minute film, and Jack Pettigrew, a basilica parishioner who plays Father Ryan in “A Higher Call,” appeared at the showing at KCHS.

Mr. Pettigrew said he “was really thankful to just be a part of the project.”

“I thought it was really wonderful, Mark’s mission for Father Patrick Ryan,” he continued. “I just felt really thankful to be involved and to even play a small role.”

Mr. Pettigrew did not have dialogue in the film, which marked his first experience with acting.

“I thought the film was wonderful. I feel like I wouldn’t have done such a good job if I had some lines,” he said. “It was really smooth, filming with Mark.”

After the film showing at KCHS, Father Carter saluted Mr. Pettigrew, who was chosen for the title role because of his resemblance to Father Ryan.

“Jack was walking back from Communion one day, and the director saw him and said, ‘There’s Father Ryan.’ So when ‘A Higher Call’ was made, he answered it, and it was good,” Father Carter said.

“He did a fantastic job,” the basilica rector added of Mr. Pettigrew.

Mr. Pettigrew said the technical aspects of making the film “were pretty easy for me.”

“They gave me an outfit to wear and told me when to show up and pretty much what to do all day,” he said.

The showings at KCHS and in Johnson City indicate that “the word is getting out,” Father Carter said.

“Interest is growing, and the point of making this movie is being accomplished: to get the word out about the cause of Father Patrick Ryan, to tell his story in a beautiful way and so that people can be inspired by this story,” he said.

Father David Carter gives the movie “Father Ryan: A Higher Call” an enthusiastic review during a May 6 showing of the docudrama at Knoxville Catholic High School.

Spreading the word “makes people aware and garners interest in” Father Ryan’s cause “and inspires people to emulate his selflessness and follow Christ in the same way, but also to ask for his intercession, and if there are miracles that come from that, all the better,” Father Carter said.

“I’ll say this: you never know what you’re going to get when you want to tell a story. The product of this film has blown me away. It’s far more than I could have ever imagined. It’s done so well, so professionally, that I can only see the hand of Providence in it.”

The basilica’s Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano is vice postulator for the beatification and canonization of Father Ryan.

“It’s great that we’re getting the film out to people who want to see it. I’m hoping to get more inquiries on the parish level—if parishes would like to host a showing, I can get them set up with a connection to the film, and they can show it,” Deacon DeGaetano said.

Those at the KCHS screening picked up Father Ryan holy cards that have a third-class relic of the priest attached to them: a piece from a cloth that was touched to his remains after they were exhumed and moved to the basilica in 2021.

The holy cards can “start a devotion” to Father Ryan, said Deacon DeGaetano, who also appears in the film.

“We want people to have devotion to Ryan and use him as an intercessor, and if they get a miracle or even if they get a favor, they need to let me know, and we can investigate it for a possible miracle,” he said.

Deacon DeGaetano said the movie is “beautiful and amazing to me.”

“It was shot on basically a zero budget. These people were volunteers who came from Hollywood and wanted to work on some interesting project. They’ve only really asked for expenses, and the diocese through [communications director] Jim Wogan has financed their expenses,” the deacon said.

“We’re talking probably, for the kind of film it is, I would say it costs maybe one-tenth of what it’s worth. I understand it took about five days [to make it]. I wasn’t actually in on the production. I was more on the back end to actually view it and check for accuracy, and I gave them a lot of historical material to work with to write the script. Veronica DiPippo and Mark Aramian, between the two of them, just coming to Chattanooga only a year and a half ago, they did a beautiful little project for Tennessee Right to Life based on the testimony of a lady in Chattanooga, and based on that we saw what beautiful work they can do, and they talked to both myself and Father David about doing something for us for the cause, and it’s been a wonderful gift,” the deacon added.

Father Carter introduced the film showing at KCHS.

“What we find in the example of Father Ryan is a timeless witness to a greater love and a higher call that comes with following Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for us,” he said. “Providence has brought us talented storytellers from the film industry, who have been able to interpret this wonderful example in such a beautiful and captivating way. I’m grateful for Veronica DiPippo, the director of this film, and Mark Aramian, who produced it, for this documentary that you are about to see. It is so wonderful and powerful in the way that God in His providence has allowed it to be.”

After the showing, Father Carter said, “I hope that you enjoyed this beautiful documentary. If you’re like me, you cannot be unmoved by this powerful example, masterfully depicted for us in film. Providence allowed us to produce this film with few resources and lots of hopes and prayers.”

Father Carter recognized Deacon DeGaetano’s late wife, Barbara, for her efforts early in the sainthood cause of Father Ryan.

“She was a founding member of the historical commission going into the life and archives all around the country to research the life of Father Ryan, and she died in 2018. May she rest in peace,” Father Carter said.

“Father Ryan: A Higher Call” has quickly drawn recognition from the film industry.

“This film has already been nominated in the category of best documentary at the International Christian Film Festival. Also there, Veronica DiPippo, the writer and director of the film, has been nominated as best director at the International Christian Film Festival. We just got word that we were accepted and selected into another film festival, the Festival of Arts and Cinema in London, so that’s great,” Father Carter said.

Father Carter took questions from the audience at KCHS after the film. One concerned the celebration of a feast day for Father Ryan. The basilica holds a requiem Mass on the anniversary of the day of his death, Sept. 28, but a feast day is a topic for the future, the basilica rector said.

“The idea is we can’t presume his sanctity. The Church forbids us from doing it. We have to assiduously avoid signs of undue cult, is what they would say, undue veneration that’s due only to the saints who are declared as much,” Father Carter said. “We don’t want to jump the gun until the Church has made her judgment. We’re maybe a couple of years away from being able to celebrate him as venerable, but if there’s a miracle that comes along, soon enough we might have in the Diocese of Knoxville an official feast day. I imagine that we would petition for and get Sept. 28 or roundabouts.”

Father Carter told one audience member that Father Ryan’s name got “lost” over the years because “there was probably not a good chance that he would be elevated to the altar as a saint under the old way of understanding heroic virtues or blood and martyrdom. His cause didn’t really fit either one of those, because we didn’t necessarily have great testimony of the heroic life and virtues, like Mother Teresa, of Father Ryan.”

“It was only in that last moment that he was the hero that everybody held up. Plus, he didn’t die out of hatred of the faith—somebody wasn’t killing him because he believed in Jesus. That’s the traditional blood martyrdom. It wasn’t until 2017, when Pope Francis issued that new document, which introduced the third and newest ground. I see the hand of Providence in that. His cause was waiting until such time as the Church could accommodate him,” Father Carter said.

“Also, his name was held in reverence by the Knights of Columbus this whole time,” Father Carter continued. “Knights of Columbus Council 610, which is the Sts. Peter and Paul council, has had his name since 1914. They continue to do it. They’re still called the Father Patrick Ryan Council. A few years later, the Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree Assembly 1084 also took the name of Father Patrick Ryan, so that adds to it. The Knights of Columbus kept his name alive and well and his heroic witness as something to be emulated in the fashion of the Knights of Columbus. They did keep his name well known, at least as much as they memorialized him in their councils.”

Father Ryan’s original tomb was on Priest Mound at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chattanooga.

“I said, ‘Boy, that’s the pastor of the parish that I’m the pastor of now,’” Father Carter recalled when seeing the tomb at the cemetery.

Father Ryan invited the Dominican Sisters to establish Notre Dame de Lourdes Academy, now Notre Dame High School, in 1876 during his time at Sts. Peter and Paul

Father Carter appealed to the KCHS audience for donations to the cause of Father Ryan.

Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano is working with Father David Carter to make sure pastors know that they can show the movie “Father Ryan: A Higher Call” in their parishes.

“Promoting the cause of Father Ryan is only possible because of your support,” he said. “Since we began postulating the cause, we’ve raised $43,000, and that’s allowed us to begin the inquiry and do the historical research, as well as undertake the massive project of exhuming his mortal remains and transferring them to the new tomb located at the basilica. Now the cause is coming to the homestretch of the diocesan inquiry. We have to bring the cause to Rome, to the Dicastery for the Causes of the Saints there. There are various costs associated with that. We need to raise $42,000 to complete that effort and allow the Church Universal to know the example of our own Father Patrick Ryan. In addition to the $42,000 that we need to bring the cause to Rome, we also have to consider that when it goes to Rome, we’ll need to be paying the Roman postulator on a regular basis. There will be more costs associated with any miracle that’s proposed. Every miracle has to be examined by doctors and experts and things like that. These future costs are yet to be determined.”

For more information on the cause of Father Ryan, visit frpatrickryan.com. Website visitors can click on a donate button to contribute to the cause.

Donations also can be made payable to the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and mailed to the basilica at 214 E. 8th St., Chattanooga, TN 37402. Put “for the cause of Father Patrick Ryan” in the memo field of the check.

Parishes are encouraged to show the movie. To set up a screening, contact Deacon DeGaetano at deacongaspar@me.com.

“Father Ryan: A Higher Call” will be shown on EWTN on Sept. 28, the same day as the closing session of diocesan inquiry. Blu rays and/or DVDs will be produced of the film after that date, Father Carter said.

Mr. Aramian and Ms. DiPippo were not at the showing of the Father Ryan film at KCHS but did issue a welcome statement that was read by Father Carter after the screening:

“After moving to Chattanooga in the spring of 2021 and joining the Sts. Peter and Paul family, we met with Father Carter to discuss how we could best contribute to the Church using our expertise as filmmakers. The result is the docudrama you have just seen. We are thrilled to share this compelling story with you.

“Today, millions of Americans can understand the fear, isolation, uncertainty, and loss of personal freedom that an epidemic can bring to society. Imagine how much more magnified these feelings were in a world of 19th-century medicine. It was in that world that Father Patrick Ryan fearlessly walked in Christ’s footsteps as an example of Christian charity in action.

“As storytellers, we felt this compelling story was both important and timely. As Father Carter states in the film, ‘The priesthood is under attack.’ There are so many examples of priests who have not honored their priestly vocation, that we wanted to tell a story about a priest who ‘did it the right way.’ It is our hope, for those who may be critical of the Church and the priesthood, that this film will rekindle a respect for both institutions.

“Father Patrick Ryan was known to be a hero in his own time and deserves recognition in ours. It is important to remember—despite the never-ending barrage of negative media against the Catholic faith—that countless, unknown heroes of the faith live and move through our world today. They may not be placed front and center in the spotlight, but they do exist.

“We hope that you have found this film an inspiring testament of the importance of faith in action, and that you will consider sharing it with any friends or family members who may be questioning the validity of Christ’s Church on earth and His servants today.”

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