Bishop-elect Beckman’s episcopal formation has ties to East Tennessee

Bishop-elect Beckman’s episcopal formation has ties to East Tennessee

By Dan McWilliams

The 5,000 who attended the ordination of Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell and the formal establishment of the Diocese of Knoxville on Sept. 8, 1988, did not know it, but the fourth bishop of Knoxville was seated among them at the old Knoxville Convention and Exhibition Center as the first bishop was installed.

As he introduced himself to the Church in East Tennessee at his opening press conference on May 7 in the Monsignor Mankel Room at the Chancery, Bishop-elect Mark Beckman recalled that day more than 35 years ago.

“Back in 1988, this Diocese of Knoxville was created. I think I was a deacon or a seminarian, I can’t remember exactly at what point in the journey I was, but I remember being here for the creation of this diocese,” he said. “What a day of joy it was.”

Bishop-elect Beckman could still hear Italy native Archbishop Pio Laghi, apostolic pro-nuncio to the United States and principal consecrator of Bishop O’Connell, read off the 36 counties that make up the Diocese of Knoxville.

“I remember the pro-nuncio as he was calling the names of all the counties of this East Tennessee, his very rich accent,” Knoxville’s new bishop said. “And it was a joy to hear how a diocese is created and a joy to be here at its birth. So, I’ve treasured this place all of these years.”

The bishop-elect’s formative years and his time as a seminarian and priest are intertwined with many well-known names in Diocese of Knoxville history as well as his native Diocese of Nashville.

Father David Carter, left, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, shows Bishop-elect Mark Beckman the basilica and its many holy aspects. (Photo Jim Wogan)

Who, what, when, and where

Monsignor Xavier Mankel, one of the founding fathers of the Church in East Tennessee who held multiple diocesan-level roles—including four that overlapped early on as he served as superintendent of schools, vicar general, moderator of the curia, and chancellor—became pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., as a young Mark Beckman was finishing his secondary education at Lawrence County High School. At that time, in 1979, then-Father Mankel had just left his 12-year role as principal of Knoxville Catholic High School.

The future Monsignor Mankel succeeded Father John Kirk as pastor of Sacred Heart in Lawrenceburg. Both Monsignor Mankel and Father Kirk are Knoxville natives who were educated at the old St. Mary School in downtown Knoxville and at KCHS. Monsignor Mankel served as a priest for 56 years until his death in 2017. Father Kirk, a retired priest of the Diocese of Nashville, celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination on May 9, 2020. He was ordained a priest at Sacred Heart Church in Knoxville, the future cathedral parish, and his first time as a pastor came with his assignment to Sacred Heart in Lawrenceburg in 1975. Bishop-elect Beckman would graduate from Sacred Heart School in the Middle Tennessee town the next year.

“Monsignor Mankel was my pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Lawrenceburg. I’ll tell you also, prior to Father Mankel was Father John Kirk, who is also a native of the Diocese of Knoxville, and it was Father John Kirk who inspired me to become a priest. His care for the people of God and his love for the Lord that was manifest to me really inspired me to say yes to the idea of going to the seminary,” Bishop-elect Beckman said. “Monsignor Mankel, what a character. I think he came to Sacred Heart directly from being principal at Knoxville Catholic High School. He was more like a principal when I first met him, very well-ordered and structured, so when I was told this morning that this room was named after him, I said wow.”

Bishop-elect Mark Beckman, second from right, lifts up his voice during a noon cathedral Mass. Beside him are, from left, Deacon Sean Smith, Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, and Deacon Walt Otey. (Photo Bill Brewer)

The bishop-elect has a connection to another key priest in the Diocese of Knoxville’s history: Monsignor Al Humbrecht, who celebrated his 52nd anniversary of priestly ordination the day before the new bishop’s press conference. Monsignor Humbrecht was ordained a priest in 1972 at St. Henry Church in Nashville, where Bishop-elect Beckman has served as pastor for the last nine years. When the Diocese of Knoxville was between bishops after the departures of Bishop O’Connell and later its second shepherd, Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, it was Monsignor Humbrecht who was chosen by his brother priests both times to serve as diocesan administrator.

Monsignor Humbrecht served as pastor of St. Augustine in Signal Mountain from 1981 to 1987 before taking the same role at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Chattanooga from 1987 to 1997. In that transition time around 1986 to 1987 as he moved from one parish to another, then-Father Humbrecht had his future bishop at each assignment.

“There are many fond memories of my days in this diocese, serving first at St. Augustine in Signal Mountain with Father Al Humbrecht that summer. I was a seminarian, in for the summer,” Bishop-elect Beckman recalled. “Then the following summer at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Chattanooga also as a seminarian with Father Al Humbrecht, who had moved from one parish to the other. So, Monsignor Al, I want to say to you, you helped prepare me well for my vocation as a priest. Thank you.”

And in one of his final roles before his priestly ordination, Bishop-elect Beckman taught at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga in the 1989-90 school year.

“My year teaching at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga solidified my desire to be ordained to the priesthood,” he said. “I was in that discernment period, and as I taught those students, I was reflecting on what God was calling me to do, and I knew that He was calling me to the priesthood. Sometimes it takes a long time for us to hear what God is trying to tell us, but during that year I listened, and the joy of saying yes to that call has been immeasurable.”

The bishop-elect was ordained a priest on July 13, 1990, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville by Bishop James D. Niedergeses, the bishop of Nashville at the time the Diocese of Knoxville was erected.

Bishop-elect Beckman will be ordained and installed as Knoxville’s fourth shepherd on July 26.

“That will be a Friday, and that’s the feast of Sts. Anna and Joachim, the grandparents of Jesus, so I’m delighted by that because my grandparents were also a great source of love in my life,” he said. “I’ve prayed at their graves this week, and also I’ve prayed at the grave of our former bishop of Nashville, Bishop James Niedergeses, who was also from my hometown of Lawrenceburg, and he was the last bishop who was bishop of all of Middle and East Tennessee. He confirmed me in the eighth grade. He ordained me as a priest, and he was my first bishop. I went to his grave and asked his intercession on my behalf.”

Knoxville’s bishop-elect received a bachelor’s degree in history from St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, in 1984 and earned a master’s degree in religious studies from the Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium, in 1988. His classmates in Belgium included the future Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, leader of the Archdiocese of Louisville and apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville until July 26, and the future Bishop J. Mark Spalding, Nashville’s current shepherd.

The newly ordained Father Beckman served in his first assignment as associate pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Nashville in 1990-91. He also taught at Father Ryan High School in Nashville from 1990 to 1996, serving as associate principal for pastoral affairs the last five years. In 1996, he became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Springfield and St. Michael Mission in Cedar Hill. After six years at those two parishes, he served as pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Franklin from 2002 to 2015. He moved to St. Henry Parish in Nashville, where he has served as pastor since 2015.

Reflections on a vocation

In an article this April for the Nashville Catholic, a publication of the Diocese of Nashville, Bishop-elect Beckman reflected on how his vocation to the priesthood sprouted and grew at Sacred Heart Church and School in Lawrenceburg.

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Erin Mobley, left, tells Bishop-elect Mark Beckman, center, about CCETN’s adoption services. Also present are Deacon David Duhamel, Father David Boettner, and Deacon Sean Smith. (Photo Bill Brewer)

“Even as a little boy going to church, I remember being struck by the faith of that community, and I wouldn’t have had the words for it, but for the history that’s behind it,” he said. “Growing up in that environment planted the seeds of my vocation.”

The examples of his parents and grandparents, as well as priests, became the biggest influence, the article continued.

“Father John Kirk was a real inspiration for me both because he seemed to be a man of prayer, but also because he really connected to the youth,” Bishop-elect Beckman said. “I remember at one point thinking, ‘If I could be as close to God as he seems to be and as close to the people, I would love to be a priest.’”

As a junior at Lawrence County High School, the future bishop attended a Search for Vocations weekend in Nashville designed for young men considering the possibility of priesthood, according to the Nashville Catholic. Bishop-elect Beckman would graduate from high school and go on to seminary at St. Ambrose in Davenport.

“They had a seminary on campus, yet it was a regular college-campus environment, so it was a wonderful co-ed Catholic liberal arts college with beautiful liturgies every day,” the priest of Nashville said in the article. “We had morning and evening prayer in the chapel together, and there were several priests on campus, many of whom were very inspirational figures for me. And so those four years continued to nourish my vocation.”

His time in Belgium allowed him to attend Masses and general audiences with Pope St. John Paul II, but he still didn’t have the clarity he needed on whether God was calling him to the priesthood, the article continued.

“The one unresolved question was ‘Would I be happy being a priest and living a celibate life?’” then-Father Beckman said, noting that he asked Bishop Niedergeses for a year off to further contemplate before being ordained.

During that time, he served as deacon of St. Stephen Parish in Old Hickory and taught classes at Father Ryan High School and Notre Dame in Chattanooga. He received the clarity he needed from God, and he was ordained a priest by Bishop Niedergeses in the summer of 1990, the Nashville Catholic reported. His first assignment after ordination was at Holy Rosary and at Father Ryan.

“That was an incredibly profound experience for my vocation as a priest. There were almost a thousand students and over 100 faculty and staff every day on campus, so you got to experience daily interactions that were quite profound,” Bishop-elect Beckman shared with the Nashville Catholic.

Bishop-elect Mark Beckman, center, and Father David Boettner greet Alejandro Huerta at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee. (Photo Bill Brewer)

He received his first pastorate at Our Lady of Lourdes Church and St. Michael Mission Church.

“I loved being a pastor for the first time,” he said in the article.

He was also assigned as director of the diocesan Catholic Youth Office and led its Search for Christian Maturity retreat program for 13 years.

“I loved the Search program. I could see the work of God in that program shaping young people,” he told the Nashville Catholic. “I think the gift of being a priest this long now in the diocese is seeing many of the young people I taught at Father Ryan and also in the Search program who are actively engaged in the life of the Church as adults. I see how effective the gift of Father Ryan and Search were to those young people in those days. I’ve literally been able to see the fruit of that work unfold over time. It’s been a great blessing.”

After eight years at Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Michael, Bishop-elect Beckman was assigned pastor of St. Matthew in Franklin, his first assignment as pastor that also included a school.

“That was an incredibly wonderful place to be a pastor at a time of great newness and energy in that community because they had just opened the school the year before that,” Father Beckman said in the article. “I got there, and the lay faithful were really actively engaged in the parish and had an incredible staff that I worked with, so it was a really vibrant, growing faith community and an incredible place to be part of.”

He went to St. Henry in 2015, succeeding Monsignor Mike Johnston as pastor. Monsignor Johnston succeeded Monsignor Mankel as principal of Knoxville Catholic High School

“Monsignor Johnston was a model pastor for me when it came to leadership, and he has always been someone through the years who I could go to for pastoral advice and counsel,” the bishop-elect said. “I can’t believe it’s been nine years. My time here at St. Henry seems like it has flown by.”

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