St. Alphonsus Parish moves into its new church with thanksgiving
By Dan McWilliams
Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre extended his hand and said only five words to start his homily in the dedication Mass for the new St. Alphonsus Church in Crossville on Sept. 12, and the assembly erupted in applause.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked.
The St. Alphonsus faithful waited 20 years for a traditional worship space after attending Mass in Liguori Hall, their parish life center that was dedicated in 2003.
Archbishop Fabre, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville, dedicated the new church and its altar. He installed relics of the parish namesake, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and Blessed Stanley Rother in the altar.
Principal concelebrants were St. Alphonsus pastor Father Mark Schuster and Father Christopher Floersh, parochial vicar of St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut. Seven additional diocesan priests took part, and Deacons Daniel Herman and Peter Minneci, who serves at St. Alphonsus, assisted. Deacons Hicks Armor and Walt Otey were masters of ceremonies.
The priests concelebrating were Father Michael Woods, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade; Father Michael Nolan, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland; Father Dominic Nguyen, pastor of Divine Mercy in Knoxville; Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga; Father Michael Hendershott, associate pastor of Holy Ghost in Knoxville; Father Joseph Austin, parochial vicar of Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa; and Father Martin Gladysz, associate pastor of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., also were present.
Father Jim Harvey, pastor of Holy Trinity in Jefferson City, was remembered at the dedication Mass in Cumberland County for launching the building project. He served as St. Alphonsus pastor from December 2006 to 2011 and again from 2014 to 2021. Father Schuster succeeded him.
The new $2.2 million church was designed by architect Phil Adams of J&S Construction in Cookeville, also the contractor for the project as well as the original builder of Liguori Hall. Parishioners helped work on the interior of the building. The nave of the church seats more than 300. The new worship space, which sits in front of the parish life center, is some 8,000 square feet including a covered porch, or portico. It also has a cupola and a bell tower.
Worshiping in a new way
The dedication ceremony began with the servers, concelebrating priests, deacons, Archbishop Fabre, and the parishioners processing from Liguori Hall to the front doors of the new church. They sang Psalm 122, “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord” as they went.
John Gray, co-chair of the parish building committee with Angelo Farrugia, presented the church blueprints to Archbishop Fabre.
“Archbishop, the architecture captures the rich tradition of our Catholic heritage,” Mr. Gray said.
The archbishop then uttered the words of Psalm 100:4.
“Enter the gates of the Lord with thanksgiving, His courts with songs of praise,” he said.
Father Schuster knocked twice on one of the front doors, and they were opened from within by parish Knights of Columbus St. Bernard Council 8152 Grand Knight John Peaslee.
“I got to knock on the door. That might be the last time I get to knock on that door,” Father Schuster quipped after Mass.
The celebrants and parishioners entered the church singing “To Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign King.”
Inside the church, Archbishop Fabre blessed the water for sprinkling the people as a sign of repentance and as a remembrance of baptism. He then passed through the church, sprinkling the people, walls, and altar with holy water.
The readings from Nehemiah 8 and 1 Corinthians 3 were proclaimed by Joe Rummel and Cindy Andrews. Deacon Minneci read the Gospel from Matthew 16.
“My dear friends in Christ, what a joy and an honor it is for me to be here to celebrate with you the dedication of this new church for this faith community of St. Alphonsus in Crossville,” Archbishop Fabre said as he began his homily. “I sincerely, sincerely congratulate you on this accomplishment, and I thank you for your enduring faith and for the prayerful and financial sacrifice of this parish community that brought the dream of this new church building to fulfillment.
“I congratulate your good pastor, Father Mark Schuster, your deacon, Peter Minneci, and all who served in parish leadership in their ongoing efforts to bring this church building to reality. What a fantastic job you have all done for the Lord and this parish family.”
The archbishop has a connection to the Crossville parish patron.
“I must also share with you that the first parish I served in as a newly ordained priest was St. Alphonsus in Greenwell Springs, La.,” he said. “Therefore, I do feel very close to your patron saint. This increases the joy I have in being present to dedicate this church under the patronage of St. Alphonsus, a great moral theologian and the founder of the Redemptorist priests and brothers. Through the intercession of St. Alphonsus, may this faith family always know God’s enduring presence and abundant blessings.”
As a young boy growing up in New Roads, La., the future archbishop attended St. Augustine Church in his hometown.
“I can remember as a child that each time my mother, and indeed many others, would pass in front of the church or any Catholic church, by car or on foot, she would make the sign of the cross,” he recalled. “Intrigued as a child, I once asked my mom why she did this, and she said it was out of reverence for the Eucharist present in the church and as a reminder of all that the church building proclaimed by its presence.”
The archbishop adopted the practice himself.
“From that point forward, each time I pass in front of what I know to be a Catholic church, I try to remember to make the sign of the cross out of reverence for the Eucharist housed there and as a reminder of all that the church proclaims and reminds me by its presence.”
His boyhood church’s location prompted another reason to perform the sacramental.
“I must also state that St. Augustine Church is very near to a traffic signal in the town,” Archbishop Fabre said. “It surprised me how many times I myself or others nonetheless made the sign of the cross while attempting to clear the traffic signal before, or even just after, it turned red. Even in situations of temptation to run the traffic light, or giving in to running the light, the church nonetheless reminded us of what was the right thing to do.”
His mother’s actions as she passed a Catholic church “serve as a constant reminder that Catholic church buildings are important structures,” the archbishop said. “In all that is going on in our lives and our world, church buildings are one reminder of our covenant relationship with God, a covenant relationship that we must constantly nurture and surrender to in our words and actions.”
In the first reading at the dedication Mass, Ezra reads from the Book of the Law. The people assembled weep “because they hear the promises made to God in their relationship with the Lord” and “realize how far they have strayed from what they promise,” Archbishop Fabre said.
At the end of the reading, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites encourage the people not to weep but to rejoice in the Lord. With the knowledge of the relationship with God renewed, “they should rejoice,” the archbishop said. Secondly, people are called to rejoice even in their own sin because “God is a merciful God who forgives transgressions,” he continued.
“We rejoice in this new church building that stands as a silent and yet powerful sentinel of what is true and good, and by its very presence in this community it reminds us of all that our Catholic faith calls us to embrace in this place where the Lord will be housed. In a world today faced with so many temptations to root the center of our lives and our actions on so many transitory and passing things of this world, the physical presence of this church building reminds us that we are both called and challenged by our Lord Jesus Christ to center our lives on things that are eternal and true. The presence of this church building, too, invites us to seek reconciliation, to confess our sins, to rejoice in God’s forgiveness, and to root ourselves anew in our covenant relationship with the living God.”
A church building “is a symbol of the family of faith, the parishioners, you, the people of God, who gather here to pray,” the archbishop said. “All that a church building represents is even more fully expressed in those who fulfill the Lord’s command to keep holy the Sabbath day by participating in the weekend Eucharist and other occasions to worship and pray in this house of God.”
In the second reading, St. Paul states that every person is God’s temple, housing the Holy Spirit.
“As a family of faith, we proclaim, we live, and we pray this reality,” the archbishop said. “All are temples of God’s Spirit.”
The new St. Alphonsus Church “is holy ground,” Archbishop Fabre pointed out to the congregation.
“For here in this place, sacred Scripture will be proclaimed to remind us of our responsibilities to the Lord and to one another,” he said. “The family of faith gathers here to celebrate and to receive the Eucharist worthily so that we, in appropriate ways, can become what we receive and be strengthened to live our faith beyond the walls of this building. … The family of faith that gathers here knows that in our words and actions we are to show forth that all are welcome to this place to encounter the love of Jesus Christ and then to accept the challenge that He places before them in living life as His disciples as Catholic Christians.”
St. Alphonsus parishioners are part of a larger family of faith beyond Crossville, “the universal Church of Jesus Christ built on St. Peter’s great faith confession proclaimed in our Gospel,” Archbishop Fabre noted.
“This church building, a part of the universal Catholic Church built on the rock of St. Peter’s faith, stands as a reminder that Jesus sees and loves all people. However, as He did with St. Peter, Jesus also sees and loves the person He is calling us to be, the disciple He is trying to pull out of us.”
The new church building “does not stand here as a kind of ‘divine courthouse’ to render judgment on us or on our faults. This church building is rather to be seen as what Pope Francis calls a ‘field hospital’ for all the battles of our lives,” the archbishop said, adding that “this church building is a reminder that the Church desires to bind and heal the wounds of our faults and failures of life in an ever more confusing and violent world, to heal our sins and transgressions that flow from our imperfections, and to assist Jesus in calling forth each of us to be the disciple He desires us to be.”
In the end, the archbishop concluded, “This new church building is the place where you, every one of you who are a part of this St. Alphonsus Parish community, will encounter the Lord and regularly gather to celebrate the joys, the sorrows, and even the wonderful routine of life, strengthened by the Eucharist and challenged by the words of sacred Scripture. As you do so, pray for one another, those who come here to this church and those who do not. If you have an extra prayer, I ask you to pray for me. St. Alphonsus, patron of this community, pray for us. Amen.”
Following the homily, led by the parish choir, the assembly sang the Litany of the Saints, which mentioned St. Alphonsus and Blessed Stanley Rother. The relics were deposited in the altar, and Archbishop Fabre anointed the altar with chrism. Father Schuster and Father Floersh anointed the walls with chrism. The archbishop incensed the altar and walked around the church incensing the people and the walls. The altar was covered with a linen cloth and then the altar cloth. The sanctuary was decorated with flowers, and candles were brought to the altar. Deacon Minneci and Deacon Herman, from a candle held by the archbishop, lit the candles throughout the church.
“Here, may the flood of divine grace overwhelm human offenses so that your children, Father, being dead to sin, may be reborn to heavenly life,” Archbishop Fabre prayed. “Here, may your faithful, gathered around the table of the altar, celebrate the memorial of the Paschal mystery and be refreshed by the banquet of Christ’s Word and His body. Here, may the joyful offering of praise resound, with human voices joined to the song of angels in unceasing prayer, rise up to you for the salvation of the world. Here, may the poor find mercy, the oppressed attain freedom, and all people be clothed with the dignity of your children until they come exalted to the Jerusalem, which is above.”
You’ve done it!
Father Schuster spoke at the end of Mass, and his opening words also evoked a long ovation.
“Well, look what you’ve done,” he said. “There is so much that has occurred. I think we have all come to learn, especially myself, in sometimes very difficult ways, to trust in the Holy Spirit. And when we did, to see what has come from that, to see this beautiful church, this beautiful sanctuary.”
The St. Alphonsus pastor, speaking on the memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary, expressed his gratitude to Archbishop Fabre, his brother priests, women religious who attended, deacons, altar servers, and the choir.
Father Harvey “began this process how many years ago and generously handed it on to me,” Father Schuster said to laughter. “All the priests who have been here since the very beginning who have handed on the faith that we are receiving and handing on ourselves. The building committee, the fundraising committee, the finance council, and the parish council, and my great staff, who have allowed me to be a priest because they anticipate and do these things that need to be done, and they kind of direct me where to go. For all of you and all the others who have done all the fine finishing works in this church and everybody who helps with this church and serves in ministries in this church in some way, I am so grateful.”
The day-to-day life of the parish would continue after the dedication, including its daily Masses, its St. Alphonsus Community Services—which has given away millions of dollars and thousands of meals to Catholics and non-Catholics alike since its founding in 1986—and its hosting of the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, Father Schuster said.
“May we continue in our adult faith formation and education for all, from the youngest to the oldest, so we can evangelize ourselves and evangelize the rest of the community,” he said. “We need to complete that project of building a playground for all of the families with kids who need more welcoming and hospitality here and maybe a reward for their children so they stay quiet during Mass. And the adults, too.
“But I’m so grateful, and you can sleep in tonight. Get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow we will begin at 6:30 in the morning with Mass, with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament to follow, and 8:30 Mass after that.”
Deacon Minneci said the dedication of the new church was a long time coming.
“It’s so beautiful to be in here, finally, after 20 years of waiting. It was well worth it,” he said.
Father Schuster has meant “everything” to the parish since his arrival in 2021, Deacon Minneci said.
“He’s had a good vision. He’s kept things in line. He’s kept us on track.”
Father Floersh, former diocesan director of vocations, is good friends with Father Schuster and was delighted to concelebrate the Mass.
“During my time as vocation director, I was able to come here and visit and speak to the parishioners about vocations. I got to know the parish very well.”
He said the parish is like a second home to him.
“In many ways it is,” he said.
Father Floersh said the dedication Mass “was very special, and I can’t imagine all of the work, even though I heard about most of it, that went into it. I was here two months ago, and the place looked so different than it is now. I will say that I was tearing up at several moments during Mass, and I can say that I am embarrassed to say that; however, that is the truth.”
Father Schuster said he has been at St. Alphonsus only a short time while his parishioners have been waiting two decades for a new church.
“Twenty years ago, I was at the University of Tennessee graduating from college, and they were just getting into Liguori Hall, and so now 20 years later to be in here and to work so hard and sacrifice to build this beautiful church, it’s amazing. It’s great to be a part of it.”
The archbishop’s opening line of his homily, which drew a long applause, evoked “a great feeling to see how much people like what was done here,” Father Schuster said.
The pastor also received a hearty ovation during the Mass.
“I don’t know if I deserved it, but it was very special,” he shared.
Windows to the past
The church is not fully complete, with 17 stained-glass windows remaining to be installed.
“We just signed a contract to complete the stained-glass window project,” Father Schuster said. “There are 14 windows, seven facing north and seven facing south. The idea was that there are 14 Stations of the Cross—St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote a meditation on the Stations of the Cross; it’s one of the most popular ones, so I thought, let’s make the stained-glass windows the Stations of the Cross.
“There are three other windows that will be put in, and one of them will be St. Cecilia in the choir section. There will also be one with Sts. Monica and Augustine because so many have a devotion to St. Monica because they pray for their children to come back to the faith, and they see St. Augustine as the fruit of that prayer. Then the other one will be St. Juan Diego wearing the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
Several windows, manufactured by Lynchburg Glass of Lynchburg, Va., have already been installed.
“In the sanctuary you have St. Alphonsus on the right and St. Francis on the left. They’re both kneeling because they’re surrounding the tabernacle, and it’s a reminder of our relationship with our daughter parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade, so I thought it would be good to have them in the sanctuary because we’re a community of Catholics up here centered in Christ,” Father Schuster said. “Then in the entryway we have the Baptism of the Lord, the Holy Eucharist, the Last Supper, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit,” the latter a round window over the front door.
“The idea behind that was, I thought, what are the sacraments of initiation, the theological entry into our Church, its baptism, confirmation, and Holy Eucharist. So, therefore, the physical entrance to this church will also reflect that: the Baptism of the Lord, the Last Supper, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost,” Father Schuster continued.
The Knights provided another window.
“The other stained-glass window we did was a Blessed Michael McGivney window, the founder of the Knights of Columbus,” Father Schuster said.
Building committee co-chairs Mr. Gray and Mr. Farrugia “were here every day” during the project, Father Schuster said.
“Once we began and broke ground and signed contracts, they were going to be the point people for the parish, for myself, and the construction company. They ate, slept, and bled, whatever you want to call it—they lived this project out since we broke ground. They’ve been tirelessly working on all of this. They were on site every day when they were doing construction and when they weren’t doing construction. I think I saw them every day. They would ask me questions after every Mass. I think I might miss that. They were very instrumental.”
Other groups were also vital, the St. Alphonsus pastor said.
“We also had a fundraising committee to help to see the feasibility and to go after and to encourage the fundraising, to raise the money. They were also instrumental. There was also someone on the finance council to make sure that we had the money we needed to pay for what we needed at the time.”
The pews had been planned for later, but the building committee put it out to the community, and the funds were raised. The tabernacle, crucifix above the altar, and statues came from the old St. Alphonsus Church across the street.
The triptych icon behind the altar was written by Father Paul Gerard Czerwonka of Wisconsin, who found out St. Alphonsus was building a new church and offered to create it. The icon depicts the Nativity, crucifixion, and resurrection. Father Czerwonka also wrote the icon of Blessed Stanley Rother that hangs in the back of the church.
Father Schuster and Father Floersh traveled together to Wisconsin to bring the triptych back.
The new baptismal font was donated by the St. Alphonsus Council of Catholic Women. The statue niches were painted by parishioner Diane Minneci.
Father Schuster said he was grateful to Bishop-emeritus Richard F. Stika, who assigned him to St. Alphonsus in 2021, installed him as pastor in fall 2022 and at the same Mass blessed the bell that was put in the tower this year. Bishop Stika and Father Schuster officiated at the groundbreaking for the new church in December 2021.
“It was Bishop Stika who sent me up here and trusted this project to me. We don’t always get to finish the projects we start. He entrusted me with this, and Archbishop Fabre finished it with the dedication,” Father Schuster said.
The more than century-old bell, named Gabriel, was made by a St. Louis foundry.
“We ring it at the Angelus hours and then 15 and five minutes before every Mass and at funerals,” Father Schuster noted.
Father Michael Woods, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fairfield Glade, took part in the dedication Mass. He recently presented Father Schuster with a $30,000 gift from the daughter parish to St. Alphonsus. At that time earlier this year, the church was unfinished, but “so much” work happened in the weeks leading up to the dedication, Father Schuster said.
“Once the pews were in, it really started to take shape more,” he said. “Once the pews were in, we received our occupancy letter, and then we were able to modify the building, but until we had our certificate of occupancy we couldn’t modify beyond the plans.”
The floral arrangements at the dedication Mass were created by parishioners Beatrice Pereira and Sabina Coronado-Massey. The altar dressers were Gloria Casale and June and Manny Martin. The gifts were presented by Charlie Grismore, Justin Diehl, and Michael Boyd. Altar servers were Jake Nelson, Rogelio Hernandez, Angel Torres-Islas, and Paige Peaslee. A reception after Mass was hosted by the Council of Catholic Women, whose members made 200 cookies to look like little churches and little Holy Spirit windows.
Grand Knight Mr. Peaslee, a 20-year member of St. Alphonsus, is also the Knights’ District Deputy for District 16 in Tennessee. He talked about his parish’s “huge project” that spanned more than 20 years.
“We raised the money. We didn’t borrow anything,” he said. “Everybody in this church came out and contributed. They bought windows. They bought pews. The council was allowed to buy a Father McGivney stained-glass window and have it installed. All the woodwork in this new church was done by parishioners. They purchased the wood on their own. They stained it. They did it all. They made the pulpit.”
Mr. Peaslee said the sanctuary of the new church incorporates the altar from the first St. Alphonsus Church building.
“That altar has been in storage for more than 20 years,” he said. “The first St. Alphonsus Church in Crossville was a converted house. The altar from that building now serves as the center altar on which the tabernacle is placed just behind the altar of sacrifice. The Knights of Columbus purchased the altar stone from which the new altar of sacrifice is made.” Mr. Peaslee wanted to use the former altar as a way to make the members of the original St. Alphonsus Church an important part of the new church. The Stations of the Cross in the new church were carved by the first priest assigned to St. Alphonsus, he added. The new stained-glass windows will replace all standard windows in the nave of the new church later this year or early next year, he said.
The broader Crossville community came together to help build the new St. Alphonsus Church, with people who are not Catholic donating and installing building material, Mr. Peaslee pointed out.
“A lot of people came out of the woodwork to help with this project,” he said.
Sara Carey, who serves St. Alphonsus Parish as the assistant director of religious education, also assists the parish with liturgy coordination.
“This has been a long time coming. It has been 20 years,” she said. “We moved into the parish life center on May 27, 2003. I was here. I had only been working here about two years at that point.”
She said St. Alphonsus has about 400 families, with families that have children making up about half of that total. She said the parish is growing among its members and from people moving into the Crossville area.
“The original plan was to build a new church within five years of moving into the parish life center. Then the recession hit, and that put a stop to fundraising,” Mrs. Carey said. “Then we had a change in pastors, and then we had some financial issues. So, it was like every time we thought about it, we were like, no, this is not a good time. Finally, about five years ago, when Father Jim Harvey was here, we got the ball rolling with a building committee and finalized plans. When Father Mark got here, a big chunk of the planning was already done, but he still had to finish out the fundraising and the tweaking that was needed such as permits.”
The project “has taken awhile,” Mrs. Carey said.
“We broke ground in December 2021 during the pandemic, and they didn’t start digging until maybe May of 2022. Our original dedication date was October 2022 and then March 2023, and here we are in September. We moved the dedication three times.”
She said the new church provides much better functionality for parish events. Before, the parish life center would need to be converted from worship space to event space in order to host church functions. Now, each building is dedicated.
Mrs. Carey said it will be so much better to celebrate Mass in the church and then walk next door to the parish life center for related events. “It’s just nice to be able to come and have a church to worship in,” she noted.
St. Alphonsus Parish’s roots date to the 1940s, when monthly Masses were celebrated at the home of Marge Hall with the priest usually traveling from Harriman. Weekly Mass was offered by Father James Murphy beginning in 1954 in an upper room of the old Crossville Play Center/City Hall building. The original church on Sparta Drive was built in 1961 at a cost of approximately $35,000. The parish numbered 30 families at that time. St. Alphonsus officially became a parish in 1974 and had 100 families by 1980. A new church building was dedicated in 1983, with the old structure connected to it serving as a religious-education wing.
Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell gave permission in 1996 for the growing parish to build new facilities on a 27-acre site across Sparta Drive from the old church.
Then Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz and then-pastor Father Patrick Brownell helped break ground on the $2.1 million Liguori Hall in April 2002, and Knoxville’s second bishop presided at the Mass of blessing for the parish life center in May 2003.