Paulists celebrate 50 years in Knoxville

Religious order remains committed to ministry in East Tennessee

By Gabrielle Nolan

On March 9, the members of Immaculate Conception and St. John XXIII parishes had two reasons to celebrate. Not only were the Paulist Fathers marking 50 years of service in the Diocese of Knoxville, but the order also announced that it is looking forward to maintaining its presence within the diocese for years to come.

“Thank you all for ministering with us for these past 50 years in Knoxville,” said Paulist president René Constanza. “You have the DNA of the Paulists in you; you know who we are. And so it gives me great pleasure to say that our presence and ministry here in Knoxville is not over, and we continue looking forward to many more years.”

Paulist Fathers president Father René Constanza celebrates Mass at Immaculate Conception Church on March 9. Concelebrating the Mass are, from left, Paulist Fathers Tim Sullivan, Jerry Tully, Charlie Donahue, Joe Ciccone, Ron Franco, and Jim Haley. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

A message released by the Paulist Fathers in February indicated that Paulist priests would be removed from some parishes the order staffs around the country due to the order’s aging priest population and an estimated shortage of active-ministry priests within the next 10 years.

A March 13 press release from the Paulist Fathers confirmed the fact that their presence would remain in Knoxville. Instead, the Paulists announced their departure from Newman Hall—Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley, Calif., as well as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

The press release also announced that “three of the worshiping communities served by the society will transition from a model of being staffed by two full-time, active Paulist priests to being served by one full-time priest, assisted by local Paulists in senior ministry.”

One of these communities is Immaculate Conception Parish in Knoxville.

A weekend to rejoice

For the March 9-10 weekend, Paulist priests who previously served at either Immaculate Conception or St. John XXIII parishes returned to celebrate the various Masses at each church.

The Paulists’ celebration event took place at The Foundry, an event venue near downtown Knoxville. Although the celebration took place during Lent, it appropriately happened on the weekend of Laetare Sunday, where the Church rejoices in Easter’s near arrival.

“To be here to celebrate 50 years is a joy,” Father Constanza said. “Thank God it’s this Sunday, which is Laetare, a joyful Sunday to be here to celebrate in thanksgiving to God for the ministry and the presence of us Paulists here.”

Father Charlie Donahue, CSP, pastor of Immaculate Conception, was the emcee for the event.

Father Donahue noted that this year actually marks the 51st anniversary for the Paulists in Knoxville, but the celebration was moved from last fall because of the University of Tennessee football schedule.

“I do want to take a moment, too, to just thank you for your community, thank you for the blessings you’ve continued to be for the Paulists,” he said, referring to the East Tennessee community. “I am lucky enough to have been pastor at both John XXIII and Immaculate Conception, and it’s given me just a real beautiful insight into you all and our whole community and how it all mixes together.”

Father Charlie Donahue, CSP, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Knoxville, leads Paulist priests in prayer for the people of the Diocese of Knoxville during an anniversary celebration at The Foundry in Knoxville. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

Father Donahue, who entered the Paulist novitiate in 1999 and was ordained in 2005, said it is wonderful to have “a local church home in the parishes entrusted to us in this diocese and to be brother priests with the wonderful priests serving in Knoxville.”

In response to the Paulists’ ministry remaining in Knoxville, Father Donahue noted that the Paulists’ history “is filled with expansions and withdrawals of foundations in cities all over the U.S. We go as we are able, where we are sent, and where we are welcomed.”

“While the Paulists have our special charism and apostolate, we are fellow tenants in the vineyard with so many others here doing the great work of living out our vocations that give glory to God and service to our neighbors and help one another to grow in faith,” he continued.  “We are grateful to the good folks of the Diocese of Knoxville for welcoming us all through our time here. As they say: Ad multos annos!”

Two videos played during the celebration event, highlighting various parishioners from Immaculate Conception and St. John XXIII, who shared their positive experiences with the Paulist-led parishes over the years.

Afterwards, the Paulist priests who served at the two Knoxville parishes were able to give their remarks on the celebration.

Father Michael Kallock, CSP, who serves as the novice director at the Paulists’ seminary in Washington, D.C., was among the first Paulists to come to Knoxville in 1973.

“As I understood it, the Paulists wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the vibrant group, small group, that established John XXIII, built John XXIII,” Father Kallock shared. “Three years later, the board of directors interviewed various communities to take John XXIII, and they chose the Paulist Fathers. And so we’re very grateful for that. I wouldn’t be a priest here today, 50 years I’m a priest, if it wasn’t the way you helped form me. It’s really a dialogue. … I like to say I’m only as good a priest as the people I serve because you serve me so much more. So, it’s great to be back at John XXIII and Immaculate Conception.”

Father Kallock said it was “very moving” to return to Knoxville for the celebration, and he was “surprised how many of these people remembered me, and how many of these people go back to the original John XXIII congregation.”

“I think one of the things then, and maybe now, there’s not a high percentage of Catholics in Tennessee and in the area,” he said. “Our community is about giving a Catholic presence in different areas of the country where there’s not as many Catholics. This area has grown, and a lot of people have come in from other parts of the country. I used to call this the best-kept secret of the Paulist Fathers, eastern Tennessee.”

Father Michael Kallock, CSP, gives the homily during Mass at St. John XXIII University Parish in Knoxville on March 10 as part of the Paulist Fathers’ 50th anniversary serving in the Diocese of Knoxville. St. John XXIII in 1973 was one of the first assignments for Father Kallock, who now serves as the director of novices for the Paulists as well as director of the Paulist Associates. The March 10 Mass was celebrated by Paulist president Father René Constanza, seated, who was assisted by Paulist Deacon Dan Macalinao, also seated. (Photo Bill Brewer)

Father Kallock believes that life as a priest is a “wonderful life.”

“My favorite passage of Jesus is, ‘I’ve come that you may have life and have it more abundantly,’” he shared. “And so there’s a real joy in serving the people, following Jesus; it’s life-giving. I can’t imagine a better life than I’ve had as a Paulist priest.”

Father Eric Andrews, CSP, who served in Knoxville for nine years, said it was “overwhelming to hear all the reflections of folks about how much they have benefited from our ministry.”

“I hope that my brothers and I really stop to give thanks for the blessings of this community of faith and the support that we get. It really is sustaining,” he said.

Father Andrews believes that the Paulist Fathers and Knoxville make a good fit.

“I think the Paulist Fathers are evangelizers. And I think the Catholic community in Knoxville is made up of evangelizers,” he shared, noting that the Paulists also have a mission to non-Catholics.

“This is a place where there are so few Catholics. It’s just a natural for us. We love being able to dialogue with our other Christian brothers and sisters in the neighborhood. But we also support our own Catholic brothers and sisters to share their faith broadly in an area where sometimes they know that is a challenge,” Father Andrews said.

Father Ron Franco, CSP, who serves at the Paulists’ motherhouse in New York City, said it was wonderful to be back in Knoxville.

“I spent 10 very happy years here,” he said. “I would say in my 28 years as a priest, they were my 10 happiest. So, it’s a thrill to be back here. I love Immaculate Conception Parish. I love Knoxville. And it’s just great to be here. … There’s never been a Paulist who came here who didn’t like it here. And we are looking forward to remaining here for any number of years to come.”

Father Rich Andre, CSP, served in Knoxville from 2012 to 2016, first as a deacon and then as a priest.

“When I saw the hills and the green and the flowers, flowering trees on Thursday, I almost started to cry. And I thought, it will always be home sweet home to me,” he shared. “Thank you so much for teaching me how to be a priest. I will never ever be able to repay you for the gift of such a loving and supporting community in these years, and it’s always so good to be back here.”

Father Jerry Tully, CSP, said he had a “very happy six years serving” at Immaculate Conception.

“You all made me feel very welcome from the first day that I walked through the doors of the church. The love that I experienced from all of you was really phenomenal, I just really was very touched by it, and you just made me feel at home,” he said.

“And if I may, just to put it out here to all of us and just reflect on a little bit here, tonight’s celebration really is another experience of Eucharist,” Father Tully shared. “We are all gathering here to break bread so to speak, to tell stories, and to realize how we have been blessed. We have all been blessed as the Paulists serving here at Immaculate Conception and John XXIII, and I’m sure listening to all of you, you have felt we have blessed you as well through our ministry, our concern, our care, our love for all of you. So, I just want to say to all of you, thank you so much. These past 50 years have been such a blessing to us, and may God grace us through the gift of the Holy Spirit with many more years of service to all of you as we all together continue this celebration and build God’s kingdom.”

Father Donald Andrie, CSP, the current pastor at St. John XXIII University Parish, said he really enjoyed the event and the opportunity to celebrate with parishioners.

“I think everyone did, and it reinforces how much we depend on each other to be able to do God’s work,” he said. “It was just so exciting to see not only the Paulists there but also the people who have been with us so long. And to know what all they do in so many ways.”

Noting the ministries the parishioners are involved in, such as social justice causes, the Ladies of Charity, and food pantries, Father Andrie said that “these are things that come out of what we can do together.”

“If we weren’t all together, none of that would happen,” he said. “We fit real well here, and they fit real well here, and they feel welcome. That’s one of the things I have always appreciated about the Paulists. You are welcome here first. OK, we can help you with your life, too, but first you are just welcome. And that’s so nice.”

Jackie Owen, a parishioner at St. John XXIII, attended the event.

“The Paulist priests are wonderful,” she said. “They really minister to everyone. They are so welcoming of everyone. They provide such energy and share God’s word to a tee through their own experiences, and they share so much of themselves. And personally for me, I experienced a great sudden loss when my husband passed 15 years ago, and the current pastor at John XXIII at that time reached out to me. And even when he moved on to his new assignment a few months later, he still ministered to me across the miles. And then the new pastor, associates—the ones that have come in following, they just are wonderful. They truly share God’s love. … I see Jesus in them.”

For more information on the Paulist Fathers and their ministry in the Diocese of Knoxville and across the United States, visit


Read: A History of the Paulist Fathers in Knoxville

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