A potluck dinner marks the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the parish’s first church
By Dan McWilliams
St. Mary Parish in Athens used a significant anniversary to celebrate its history at a potluck dinner Oct. 15 in the family life center.
“The recent party was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the old church building on Congress Parkway,” said St. Mary pastor Father John Orr. “The money from the sale of the old property enabled the purchase and build at the present site. In 2024, we will have the 20th anniversary in the current church.”
Three days after the dinner, St. Mary founding pastor Father Paul Hostettler passed away. Father Hostettler served as St. Mary’s shepherd from 1967 to 1969 and again from 1987 to 1993.
“We prayed for Father Paul’s eternal repose at all the Masses last weekend,” Father Orr said Oct. 24. “He served as pastor twice in Athens, first as founder and then for a return visit.”
St. Mary has had 17 different pastors over the years. Joining Father Orr at the anniversary dinner were Father Jim Vick, who led St. Mary from 2007 to 2009, and Father Jim Haley, CSP, who was parish administrator in 2018. Also present was Father Andrew Crabtree, ordained a priest this past June. St. Mary is his home parish and the place where he celebrated his first Mass after his ordination.
“It was so nice to have Father Vick and Father Haley come back to celebrate with us,” Father Orr said. “And for Father Crabtree to return to the place not only of his first Mass but also where he was received into the Church some years earlier.”
On April 27, 1965, Bishop William L. Adrian of Nashville wrote a letter in answer to a request he had received concerning the possibility of a Catholic church in Athens. His letter stated that he didn’t have a priest available at that time, but he would try to find one in a year or two. Father Hostettler, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland, was contacted and a survey done through a local newspaper. The survey results found that several families were traveling many miles on two-lane roads to attend Mass at St. Thérèse. The concern was not so much for those traveling but for the larger number of Catholics who weren’t practicing their faith at all.
In February 1967, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, coadjutor bishop of Nashville, asked Father Hostettler and Monsignor Francis Pack of Chattanooga to come to Athens and explore possible locations for the celebration of Mass until further plans could be made. At the two priests’ recommendation, Bishop Durick’s decision was to use the Quisenberry-Laycock funeral parlor.
After Bishop Durick, Father Hostettler, and Monsignor Pack spent February through May 1967 working out the schedule for Father Hostettler to celebrate Mass in Athens, at the St. Catherine Labouré Mission in Copperhill, and at St. Thérèse, the first Mass was celebrated in Athens by Father Hostettler on June 11, 1967, in the funeral parlor.
In August 1967, Bishop Adrian purchased three and a half acres of land on Congress Parkway in Athens. An existing structure on the property that had been a Chow-Now restaurant was remodeled for use as a church. Father Hostettler, meanwhile, as pastor of St. Thérèse, was traveling to Athens to celebrate Mass on Sundays and holy days for Catholics in McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, and Polk counties.
In its infancy, the Athens church had not been officially named and was first called the Athens Catholic Mission. Several weeks before the new church was to be dedicated, the naming process began. On May 12, 1968, the mission became St. Mary Church to honor Mary, the Mother of God. The parish feast day is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated in August.
The founding families of St. Mary Parish on May 12, 1968, were Don and Mary Guthrie, Jim and Flo Keele, Dottie Laycock, Edith Maxwell, Lydia and Louis McCarey, Anthony and Vi Mozur, Lawrence R. and Hilda Roussell, Lawrence Jr. and Joy Roussell, Jeanine Smith, Don and Iona Swafford, Allene Sykes, Ed and Anne Waring, and Vivian Willoughby.
In fall 1969, Father Matthew Noonan, OMI, became the first resident priest at St. Mary. Priests of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate would lead St. Mary for 18 years.
A precut cedar chapel seating more than 250 was erected in 1973 and connected to the original church building, which was then converted to a social hall.
The church was dedicated Oct. 21, 1973, with Father Noonan as pastor. During this period, parishioner Lawrence Roussell cut down an oak tree and crafted a wooden cross that continues to hang over the altar at the new St. Mary Church.
In 1976, an addition to the south side of the church provided four classrooms and an office. In 1983, an educational building was constructed, providing eight classrooms.
Father Hostettler returned in July 1987 as the first diocesan priest to serve the parish. At that time, a rectory was built on church grounds, and three staff members were hired. The parish became part of the Diocese of Knoxville when it was founded in 1988.
St. Mary celebrated its 25th anniversary on May 12, 1993. Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell, Father Hostettler, and Father Thomas Scanlon, OMI, concelebrated a Mass, and a dinner followed at Springbrook Country Club.
Upon Father Hostettler’s retirement in 1993, St. Mary welcomed Poland native Father Joseph Fiedorowicz as pastor. Under his guidance, the parish experienced dynamic growth with 230 families registered and 110 children enrolled in the CCD program. Father Fiedorowicz started a building committee in 1996 as the parish had outgrown its Congress Parkway location. On June 30, 1997, a 16.75-acre site was purchased at 1291 E. Madison Ave. in Athens for a new church and rectory. On Nov. 3, 2001, St. Mary pastor Father David Boettner blessed a sign that read “Future Home of St. Mary Catholic Church” on the Madison Avenue site. Ground was broken March 22, 2003, with Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, St. Mary pastor Father Michael Cummins, and former pastor Father Boettner among those attending. The parish had grown to 350 families by that point.
On Aug. 14, 2004, Bishop Kurtz dedicated the new St. Mary Church. Hundreds of parishioners and friends attended. Eighteen priests were present, including Father Fiedorowicz, Father Boettner, and Father Cummins, under whose leadership the building project grew.
Father Cummins was the first priest to celebrate Mass in the new church and to live in the new rectory.
The new church features a rose window and eight stained-glass windows representing the mysteries of the rosary. On the grounds is “Allene Sykes’ Rock,” a large rock founding parishioner Ms. Sykes had removed from the old church to the new one. It is located in front of the church and has a bench for prayer and reflection.
The grounds also feature a monument to the unborn given to the parish by the Knights of Columbus, a St. Francis of Assisi statue, the Virgin Mary’s Garden in front of the rectory, and trees planted in memory of loved ones.
The Mangan/Mozur CCD Building, donated by the Mozur family, was moved from the old church grounds and brought to the new church in 2004. It remains a well-used building and is home to the Ladies for Charity pantry. The original rectory was transported to the new grounds and served as the parish office until completion of the new family life center.
The parish having outgrown its narthex for socials, ground was broken for the family life center on Oct. 4, 2011. Father William Oruko, AJ, was pastor when the center was dedicated by Bishop Richard F. Stika on June 30, 2012.
Knights Council 8396 at St. Mary was founded May 15, 1983, and named for charter parishioner Lawrence R. Roussell Sr. The parish is also home to a number of organizations and ministries, including the choir, CCD, RCIA, Hispanic and youth ministries, and more. Parish charity efforts include a Good Samaritan collection monthly, Thanksgiving food baskets, Christmas gifts for underprivileged children, and a Christmas party for Head Start children.
The parish also supports the pro-life movement, a scholarship program, and the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.
Priests of St. Mary since its founding are Father Hostettler, 1967-69 and 1987-93; Father Noonan, 1969-77; Father Patrick Mangan, OMI, 1977-83; Father John Leddy, OMI, 1983-86; Father Scanlon, 1986-87; Father Fiedorowicz, 1993-2000; Father Boettner, 2000-02; Father Cummins, 2002-07; Father Vick, 2007-09; Father Oruko, 2009-13; Father Randy Stice, 2013-17; Father Scott Russell, 2017-18; Father Haley, 2018; Father Thomas Moser, 2018; and Father Orr since 2018.