A history of the Paulist Fathers in Knoxville

By Dan McWilliams

Before the Paulist Fathers assumed care of Immaculate Conception in Knoxville in 1973, the city’s oldest parish—founded in 1855—stood in danger of closing as its downtown neighborhood was beset with urban blight, and the number of Mass-goers had been dwindling for more than 15 years.

IC’s St. Mary School, which had been in operation for more than a century and housed a convent for the Sisters of Mercy who taught there, closed in 1970 as its building had become unsafe.

But shortly after the Paulists infused new life into the parish, urban renewal came to downtown in the mid-1970s. A realignment of streets made Commerce Avenue disappear and with it the old IC rectory. A new rectory was constructed in 1975 on the site of the school and convent, which had been demolished the year before, and this building today houses the IC parish offices. The Paulists now live in two houses on East Scott Avenue.

The Paulist Fathers took over from diocesan priests at both IC and St. John XXIII parishes in Knoxville at the same time, and in March celebrated their 50th anniversary in Knoxville. Bishop Joseph A. Durick of Nashville asked the Paulist Fathers to staff the two parishes because of a shortage of diocesan priests in East Tennessee, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported on Aug. 18, 1973.

St. John XXIII was established in 1967 on the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus, and its Catholic Center worship space, which it still uses, was dedicated in 1970.

Many Paulist priests have served at both IC and St. John XXIII over the last five decades. The first Paulist pastor at IC was Father Thomas Connellan, who served from 1973 to 1976. Longtime pastors and associates at IC include Father Robert Stulting (1978-86), Father Wilfred Brimley (1987-95), Father Rick Walsh (1995-2002), Father Joe Ciccone (2005-10), Father Jerry Tully (2010-16), and Father Ron Franco (2010-21).

Father George Helmich was the first Paulist associate pastor at IC in 1973 and later served as pastor from 1976 to 1979. Father Tom Tavella served at IC as an associate from 1988 to 1995 and as pastor from 1995 to 1998. Father Tim Sullivan has been the associate at IC since 2016.

One of the longest-serving pastors at IC is Father Jim Haley, who served from 1979 to 1987 and again from 1998 to 2004. He continues to serve the downtown parish as its priest in residence.

Father John McNassar was the first Paulist pastor at St. John XXIII, and the first associate pastor of the parish was Father Michael Kallock, ordained just three months before his August 1973 assignment to Knoxville.

Longtime priests at St. John XXIII include Father Charles Brunick (1977-85), Father Charles Cunniff III (1984-89), Father Terry Ryan (1995-2003), Father Eric Andrews (2000-09), current pastor Father Don Andrie, who has been serving there since 2014, and Father Bob O’Donnell, who served from 2016 to 2021 and has been a retired priest in residence there since 2021.

A few priests have served both of Knoxville’s Paulist parishes, including Father James Brucz, an associate at IC from 2002 to 2006 and at St. John XXIII from 2010 to 2011, and Father Charlie Donahue, who served as pastor of St. John XXIII from 2009 to 2014 and has been pastor of IC since 2021. Father Brucz also served as a temporary assistant at St. John XXIII in 1989-90.

Father Connellan came back to Knoxville in 2005 when IC celebrated its 150th anniversary. An anniversary dinner at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Knoxville followed a Mass at IC celebrated by Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, with Father Ciccone delivering the homily. Father Connellan spoke at the dinner and recalled that tenements in the same city block as IC in the pre-urban renewal era of 1973 included a building housing practitioners of the world’s oldest profession, who took advantage of one of the few working streetlights near the church to meet men arriving in cars.

Father Ciccone said that IC’s clock tower, which was newly lighted for the 150th anniversary, had been “lovingly baptized as Haley’s Halo.”

Paulist Fathers who have served in Knoxville have gone on to leadership roles with the community. They include Father Eric Andrews, who was president of the Paulist Fathers from 2014 to 2022. Father Connellan served as the Paulists’ vice president from 1982 to 1990. Father John Ardis, an associate at St. John XXIII starting in 1990, left in 1994 to become the Paulists’ national vocation director.

The Diocese of Knoxville’s founding shepherd, Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell, played an important role in the Paulists’ local history. He ordained Father Andrews and Father Gilbert Martinez to the priesthood in May 1995 at the community’s mother church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. Bishop O’Connell also ordained Paul Reynolds as a Paulist deacon in September 1993 at IC, the first ordination of a Paulist to take place in the diocese.

Today, both of Knoxville’s Paulist parishes are going strong, with 409 families worshiping at IC and 353 families plus some 300-400 students at St. John XXIII. Each parish serves a diverse community, with parishioners of IC and the non-student families of St. John XXIII coming from a large area beyond the parish boundaries.

The Paulist Fathers have celebrated several anniversaries with their Knoxville parishes, anniversaries of both the community’s founding and the two parishes’ own milestones. Both parishes came together on May 4, 2008, for the 150th-anniversary celebration of the Paulists’ founding by Servant of God Father Isaac Hecker in 1858. Almost 1,100 of the faithful filled the Tennessee Amphitheater at World’s Fair Park for the sesquicentennial event.

At the 2008 celebration, then-Paulist Fathers president Father John Duffy said the support of the parishioners of both Knoxville parishes helped the Paulists “continue to read the signs of the times and meet the needs of the Church in the modern age, leading the Church and the Paulists to a future brighter than any past.”


Portions of this article relied on the The Church on Summit Hill, a 1986 book by Immaculate Conception parishioner Laurence V. “Larry” Gibney.

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