St. Joseph Parish marks 75th anniversary

Norris community’s celebration is a blast from the past for members

By Dan McWilliams

When Nashville Bishop William L. Adrian named the parish in Norris after St. Joseph, he honored not only the carpenter and earthly father of Jesus but also the building spirit of early members of the community, who used their own skills to transform a burned-out house into a worship space dedicated in 1949.

Seventy-five years later, the parish still has a let’s-do-it-ourselves mentality. St. Joseph celebrated its 75th anniversary on April 28 with a meal and a gathering under a tent that featured presentations on each decade of parish history. Some 135 current and former parishioners came to the celebration at St. Joseph Church, located high on a hill above Andersonville Highway on the outskirts of Norris, its home since 1992.

Father Dennis Kress, assigned last year as pastor of St. Joseph as well as St. Therese in Clinton, already knows what makes the Norris parish special.

“It’s just a parish that has been incredibly vibrant and active,” he said. “There are just so many things happening here. It’s been amazing to watch it all take place. They did all of this,” he added with a laugh, looking around the outdoor tent and the anniversary festivities taking place. “They absolutely did it all. It was all on a volunteer basis. They took it upon themselves.”

The St. Joseph Church choir delivers the music liturgy during Vespers as part of the 75th-anniversary commemoration for St. Joseph Parish in Norris. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

Reunion of faith

Former St. Joseph pastors Father Mike Creson and Father Julius Abuh returned for the 75th-anniversary celebration, as did Father Jim Haley, CSP, who was assigned briefly to St. Joseph last year before Father Kress arrived. Father Mark Schuster, pastor of St. Alphonsus in Crossville and special delegate for the Cumberland Mountain Deanery, read a letter at the dinner from Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville, congratulating the parish on the occasion.

The late beloved former pastor Monsignor Bill Gahagan, who served three assignments at St. Joseph, was well-remembered at the celebration, as were Father Dan Richardson, the pastor of the Harriman Missions that included Norris when the 1949 building was dedicated, and Father William Nolan, the first resident priest assigned to St. Joseph when it became part of the Norris-LaFollette Missions in 1967.

The celebration began with a Vespers service in the church led by Deacon Dan Hosford, the only deacon ever to serve at St. Joseph. It continued in the parish hall as those attending sampled hors d’oeuvres and wine while looking at displays of parish history on easels. A dinner and program under the tent followed.

Karen Thompson chaired the organizing committee for the anniversary event. Also on the committee were Dennis and Judy Curtin, Dick and Gail Shriver, Kathy Ferowich, Kelly Dake, Margaret Donaldson, Mike Carberry, and Susan Baker.

The celebration “has been great,” Mrs. Thompson said, “and I am really happy at the turnout. We have a lot of people who have joined us and are celebrating this day, so it’s a real good day for us, former members and obviously current members, so it’s been really good.”

Mrs. Thompson and husband Bobby have no plans to change parishes after 17 years at St. Joseph.

“I love it. My husband and I moved here from New Jersey, and we’re staying here forever,” she said. “Let’s put it this way: I’ve had family members ask me to move to other places, and I said, ‘No, I’m not leaving because of my church.’”

Mrs. Thompson fondly recalls Monsignor Gahagan and Father Abuh, she said.

“It’s a great parish. It’s just a small community. We are really close, and everybody helps each other.”

Links to the past

Betty Anne and William Warren Jolly Sr. opened their Norris home for Masses in the 1930s before the parish was established. One of their nine children, Terri Jolly, attended the 75th-anniversary celebration and said Mr. Jolly worked for TVA when it was established in 1933. The construction of Norris Dam began in 1933 and was completed in 1936.

“Our parents moved in to Norris in the early ’30s,” Mrs. Jolly said. “They came from Minnesota and settled in North Knoxville, and then TVA got established and my dad worked for TVA. We were part of this parish from the beginning of this parish. We used to have Mass in our house. We were all very young.”

Priests who have served at St. Joseph Parish are shown. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

A converted burned-out house at 86 W. Norris Road served as the first St. Joseph Church from 1949 to 1991. The building still stands.

“I was young, so I don’t remember a whole lot. I remember going to the old church, or the first church,” Mrs. Jolly said. “I remember my dad going down to help with the reconstruction of the house because it burned down initially. The bishop, the diocese, bought the house, and the men of the parish redid the house into a church.”

Mrs. Jolly said the early days of the parish were “great” as she attended Mass with her eight siblings.

“We were little kids. We misbehaved in the church all the time. I remember that we would start laughing uncontrollably when we were sitting in the pews. The Jollys, there were nine of us, so at one time or another there were 11 of us in the two pews. We commandeered two pews in the back. When we started laughing, Mother would pinch us. She wouldn’t just pinch, she would pinch and twist,” she said with a laugh, “so it really hurt.”

Mrs. Jolly spoke of Father Richardson, who came to the Harriman Missions in the 1940s and was pastor when the church was dedicated before leaving in 1950.

“I remember Father Dan Richardson. He was the first priest in the parish,” she said. “He was wonderful. He was one of the best priests I’ve ever known. And Father Gahagan—I just remember what a kind person he was, and he was always available if you needed help. He helped my mom a lot, too.”

St. Joseph parishioner Kathy Morin said she “loves the celebration” of its 75-year anniversary.

“But I love being a part of the parish—very welcoming, great people here,” she said.

Mrs. Morin knows from experience what makes a good parish.

“I’m in my 39th home, so I’ve been in a lot of different parishes, and this is one of my favorites. My dad was at General Motors, and then I married into the Army,” she said, adding that the people of St. Joseph “are just so open and welcoming.”

The great-grandmother of four said the parish at first seemed to skew “kind of old, but then younger people started moving in. You could hear more kids crying in church.”

Father Haley’s assignment at St. Joseph was only for May and June last year before Father Kress’ arrival.

“I visited a number of times, but that’s the only time I was assigned here,” he said. “It’s a wonderful community. I was mostly here just on the weekends, so I didn’t see a lot of people, but it’s a very cohesive and beautiful community.”

Father Creson served as pastor of St. Joseph from 1992 to 1996, coming in just after its current church was dedicated. He credited Father Michael Sweeney, pastor from 1982 to 1992, for building the new church and setting the parish on solid footing.

Father Mike Creson, a former St. Joseph pastor, took part in the anniversary festivities and reflected on his ministry. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

“This parish is always a self-starting parish. Anything you needed done, people always stepped up. You didn’t have to worry about whether it was going to be done or not done right,” Father Creson said. “It’s just a wonderful parish. It’s always had that. I think, going back to at least Father Mike Sweeney, he really set that up. He was here right before me and got this parish in really good shape and built the church. Father Sweeney put a lot of things in place.”

Father Creson was speaking as he stood in the parish hall, the extension behind the worship area that was dedicated in November 1996.

“I was able to be part of the building that we’re in right now. The church was complete (when he was assigned to St. Joseph), and then we built this (parish hall) while I was here. I was reassigned just before this was finished.”

Father Creson now assists at St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland on weekends and is chaplain at CHI Memorial hospital in Chattanooga during the week. He has good memories of St. Joseph Parish.

“They were really, really good to me,” he said.

Father Abuh served at St. Joseph from 2013 to 2018 before leaving for St. Joseph the Worker in Madisonville. He recalls the people of the Norris parish having everything all set up for him to celebrate Mass or other events.

“My memories of this parish, the first one is: this parish is an auto-parish. That means it’s a parish that can rotate on its own, most of the time without the priest,” he said. “Most of the time I came in just to celebrate the sacraments. The parishioners are very good people, very generous people, very devout parishioners. The laity had everything arranged most of the time. If I had a baptism, everything was well-arranged.”

Devout in their devotion

Father Abuh said he especially remembers the St. Joseph parishioners’ devotion.

“They are very devout people. Their love for the Eucharist is very outstanding. They have a big love for the Eucharist. Most of the time when we had eucharistic adoration, we had good participation. Even after I left the parish, Deacon Dan invited me to come and give a talk on the Eucharist, which shows that they are very devout to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.”

Father Julius Abuh, former pastor of St. Joseph Parish, shares memories with St. Joseph parishioner Judy Kuhens. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

Father Abuh, a native of Nigeria, remembered one of St. Joseph’s longtime parishioners, Angelo Miceli, who played piano and organ at Masses for more than 40 years before his death at age 107 in 2021.

“Angelo really encouraged me when I came in at the beginning, because some parishioners said they did not understand my accent, but Angelo would give a summary of my homily,” he said. “Every month, he made a summary of my homilies and gave them to me, and to be honest, some of the summaries he made were better than the homilies I gave,” Father Abuh added with a laugh. “So, I have very good memories of Angelo Miceli with his family and many other families.”

Deacon Hosford has been serving at St. Joseph almost since his diaconate ordination in 2007, minus a one-year assignment at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in LaFollette. He has been attending St. Joseph since about 1992. Three generations of his family attend St. Joseph now: his wife, Penny, who came into the Church in 2021; his daughter, China Marriah; and his great-grandsons, Sebastian and Draven.

“The people of St. Joseph are honest in their love of God and life,” Deacon Hosford said. “They are joyful and accepting. Humor, good humor, has to be the prevailing tendency for the people of St. Joe—there is always a smile to be found and a laugh to be had. There is a deep sense of prayer, prayer in living life’s moments, and respect they give each generation of our parish family.”

The 75th-anniversary celebration was “more than one day,” Deacon Hosford noted.

“There were a series of ‘minor’ celebrations: prayers, adoration, stories told leading up to the main event,” he said. “And, it was a wonderful day! Pastors who had led us in prior years attended; those who couldn’t be with us wrote letters that were published in our bulletins or read from the ambo. The local news outlet had a full page in their paper about St. Joseph. It was great to see past parishioners join us in celebrating—so many have had a part in the growth and maturing of the parish.”

Sally Jackson, the office volunteer at St. Joseph for 20 years, is the senior parishioner. She stresses that she is not the oldest—that honor belongs to Monique Helton, 92, a parishioner for more than 55 years.

“I came in 1963. I’m the most-senior parishioner. I am not the oldest, just the most senior,” Mrs. Jackson said.

She added that the efforts that went into the 75th-anniversary celebration “brought back lots of memories.” Mrs. Jackson formerly lived on West Norris Road near the old St. Joseph Church.

“I lived just across the street, and when I moved here I was pregnant with our second daughter, and I was sick half the time,” she said. “The people would line up outside the door and the windows all the way to the street to hear Mass. Sometimes we would just drive to Oak Ridge so we could go to Mass. People had a good time. We had a close-knit parish.”

Summer crowds overflowed the original church, Mrs. Jackson said.

“It was too full because of the lake visitors. In the ’60s if you missed Mass, it was a mortal sin. So, all the lake visitors would come in the summer. In the winter, we didn’t have that problem until later,” she recalled.

Mrs. Jackson remembers the Jolly family at the West Norris Road church.

“The Jollys sat on the right-hand side, the back two pews were theirs, to hold nine children and two adults,” she said, adding with a laugh: “The confessional was the old commode, the old bathroom. You went right up on the altar to get into the confessional.”

In 1963, Father and future Monsignor Joel Wiggs was pastor of the Harriman Missions. He was assisted by Father Anthony Stredny.

“When I came, it was Father Joel Wiggs and Father Stredny,” Mrs. Jackson said. “Our first resident priest was Father Nolan. He came straight out of the monastery, and we put him in a rental house right across from the same house I lived in. We all went through our homes and gave him our leftovers, and that was the rectory for a while. At first, he lived in a little apartment for several months, I guess, then we bought a house on West Norris Road.”

Mrs. Jackson remembered parishioners of days gone by at the anniversary celebration.

“Some of my best friends were Ruby Kaplan and her husband. When we moved to Norris, I was pregnant, probably 23, had a son. They were very close together, and they just adopted us. Her husband was Kap or Charles Kaplan, and he came from Zanesville, Ohio, which is where my family was from, so as soon as he made that connection, I mean we had Christmases together, Thanksgivings, all the holidays. Ruby went to Hawaii for my 50th-birthday party. We were just family.”

Growing pains

Mrs. Jackson as office volunteer does bookkeeping for the parish and helps train new secretaries. On the parish’s 75th anniversary, she said the outlook for St. Joseph is great.

“It’s growing. During COVID, it sort of dwindled and seemed like it was static, and now it seems to be growing. We actually recognized 25 families recently as newcomers, but that was over a two-year period, so that’s good,” she said. “We have several families that have several generations, which I think is good.”

Displays in the parish hall during the 75th-anniversary celebration highlighted spiritual life at the parish, the Council of Catholic Women, former pastors and Father Kress (with one easel dedicated to Monsignor Gahagan), Deacon Hosford, youth and faith formation, the choir, the men’s group, and more.

After dinner under the tent at the celebration, a program was held focusing on each decade of the parish’s history. Mrs. Jackson donned a poodle skirt to talk about church and parish life in the 1950s. Annie Goodman, dressed appropriately for the era, spoke about the 1960s. Dick Shriver dressed as Sonny Bono and Judy Kuhens as Cher for the 1970s, and Doug Perry put on a green vestment to appear as Monsignor Gahagan. Larry Donovan represented the 1980s. He played guitar and sang Van Morrison’s 1967 song “Brown Eyed Girl,” which he acknowledged wasn’t from the ’80s but that he (Mr. Donovan) played it in the ’80s. Nancy Sickau and Mike Carberry talked about the 1990s, and Lori and Rory Puckett—in newscaster fashion—recounted the first decade of the 2000s. Johnny Fecco did the honors for the 2010s.

Father Haley led the closing prayer after the program.

Youth perform for those celebrating the 75th anniversary of St. Joseph Parish in Norris. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

The first Catholic services in Norris were held for TVA and Civilian Conservation Corps workers in 1933, celebrated by a priest from Johnson City. With the completion of Norris Dam in 1936, more permanence came to the town as well as the Catholic community. Most of the CCC workers were transferred and their camp closed in 1936 when the dam was finished, but some 60 families came to the area afterward, attracted by the beauty of the area.

The Jollys lived at 103 W. Norris Road and offered their home as a temporary chapel. Once a month, they moved their buffet from the dining room to the living room, where it was draped with linen to serve as an altar. Norris, LaFollette, Oneida, and Newcomb made up the northern sector of the Harriman Missions in those days, with the pastor still living in Harriman. With several stations served by the mission, the priests often had difficulty remembering the time and location of each Mass and to bring the materials necessary for celebrating liturgies. Betty Anne Jolly—for whom the Norris Library is named—once draped Father Leo Baldinger, who forgot his alb, in linen from her wedding trousseau.

Around 1939, the Catholic population in Norris grew to the point where celebrating Mass in the Jollys’ home was no longer practical. Masses began to be held bi-weekly and finally weekly in a variety of places, including in the high school auditorium, at the Norris Religious Fellowship, and at a community building before the establishment of a permanent church. The weekly Masses started when the community’s status was changed from a station to a mission. Religious-education classes were added, and the Catholic Women’s Club was formed in 1939.

The shell of a three-bedroom home that had almost been destroyed by fire was bought for a new church during Father Richardson’s days as pastor, with Bishop Adrian approving the purchase of the lot and remains of the building for $4,000. The congregation remodeled the inside, with camp chairs providing seating.

Father Richardson helped wax the floor on his hands and knees. Bishop Adrian crafted the frames for each of the Stations of the Cross. William Jolly supervised the building of the church. Raphael Saraceni designed the interior of the chapel.

Bishop Adrian celebrated the dedication Mass of the new St. Joseph Church on April 20, 1949.

The women’s club undertook the care and maintenance of the church, preparing the altar for each service, cleaning the building monthly, ironing and repairing linen and vestments, contributing money for the tuition of students attending Knoxville Catholic High School, paying the parish’s utility bills, supervising and often instructing religious-education classes, and raising funds for paving the sidewalk and graveling the parking lot. The club debuted its first major fundraiser in 1951, the Mardi Gras Card Party, an annual event for 13 years whose proceeds helped pay for lumber to build pews to replace folding chairs. Men of the parish constructed the pews.

A 1955 census recorded 23 families in the parish. Mass was on an irregular schedule in the mission parish then, at 7:30 a.m. on first and third Sundays, at 9:30 a.m. on second and fourth Sundays, and at 10:30 a.m. on fifth Sundays.

On June 18, 1967, St. Joseph left the Harriman Missions and became part of the Norris-LaFollette Missions. Father Nolan became St. Joseph’s first resident priest and added weekday Masses to the schedule. The rectory moved from 83 W. Norris Road to 88 W. Norris Road, the latter purchased by the parish with the help of a loan from the diocese.

Father David Bowes succeeded Father Nolan as pastor in 1970 and was followed by Father and future Monsignor Gahagan in 1976. Monsignor Gahagan would serve at the parish again from 2006 to 2012 and in 2017. Father Greg Boisvert, AA, served as pastor from 1978 to 1982, when St. Joseph had grown to about 50 families.

The old St. Joseph Church could seat 60 comfortably and 80 “squeezed together,” but even that was not enough with the arrival of summer visitors. With busy Sundays and holy days causing many to stand outside on the front porch and lawn, St. Joseph built a Holy Family Room in 1981 that doubled the size of the church, handled the overflow from Mass, and served as a space for catechism classes, as a cry room, as a meeting room for the parish council, and other uses. Ninety percent of the labor for the new room was provided by parishioners and their families, with longtime parishioners Claxton Chandler and Mr. Miceli co-chairing the project. In 1986, the windows of the church were replaced with stained glass.

Sonny and Cher entertain as they reflect on St. Joseph in the 1970s. Dick Shriver was Sonny Bono and Judy Kuhens was Cher. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

Overcrowding again became a problem as people from Clinton, Lake City (now Rocky Top), Powell, and other areas began attending Mass at St. Joseph, resulting in a standing-room-only situation in the Holy Family Room during Mass.

The Diocese of Knoxville was established in 1988, and founding Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell gave permission for St. Joseph to sell its building and use the money to build a new church on Andersonville Highway (State Route 61) on land donated by John and Johanna (Chandler) Humphrey. The parish sold the old-house location on Aug. 6, 1991, and met for Mass at the Norris Religious Fellowship until its new church was finished.

Bishop O’Connell broke ground on the new building in October 1991, with parishioners bringing their own shovels, and he dedicated the approximately $260,000 church on April 30, 1992. Parishioners again donated their skills for the new church, with John Froning casting and fashioning a bell, Linda Rauch making a stained-glass window near the tabernacle, and Mr. Chandler creating a mosaic depicting Joseph and the child Jesus. Joe Sprouls made the altar of repose for the tabernacle, the cross, the candle wall sconces, and the holy water font, and Steve Chandler carved a life-sized statue of the risen Christ. Many items were moved from the old church to the new, including the altar, statues, tabernacle, and stained-glass windows.

The parish hall was dedicated by Bishop O’Connell on Nov. 24, 1996. Knoxville’s founding bishop was in Norris again on April 11, 1999, when St. Joseph celebrated its 50th anniversary. The parish counted more than 80 families on its rolls at that time.

In 2008, a small addition to the church proper was built to accommodate St. Joseph’s growing choir. A columbarium was also added in 2008, surrounded by a Holy Family Garden. Bishop Richard F. Stika in 2010 blessed new Holy Family statues at St. Joseph and a house on the campus that serves as a religious-education center. Outdoor Stations of the Cross were built this year.

The parish has added numerous ministries over the years, and St. Joseph supports the Norris Food Pantry and Clothing Closet, Anderson County Community Action, Catholic Charities’ Crazy Quilt Friendship Center, Boxes of Joy, the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, and Ronald McDonald House.

Other St. Joseph pastors over the years include Father John Walsh in the early days, Father Albert Henkel (1950-57), Father Frank Brett (1996-2001), Father Gerard Finucane (2001-04), and Father William McKenzie (2004-05). Fathers John Seola, Patrick Gavigan, and John McMurray served during the 1960s. Sister Yvette Gillen, RSM, was a pastoral associate at St. Joseph and at St. Therese in Clinton for many years.

St. Joseph now has 140 families and continues to have larger numbers in the summer from Norris Lake visitors and summer residents there. And in something that is always good news for the Church in East Tennessee, St. Joseph again needs more space for Mass, with plans now afoot to expand the worship area into the current parish hall.

“We’re going to expand the gathering space,” Father Kress said. “The gathering space is going to become worship area. It’s proposed that we build a building out behind here, and then that will be used as a gathering space or a social hall. That’s a few years off.”

Growth is a key word for St. Joseph’s future, Deacon Hosford said.

“I think St. Joseph will continue to grow spiritually and physically,” he said. “The parish demands a great deal of itself, never compromising in its care of families. Education in the faith is a priority for the children, youth, and adults. There has been a great deal of growth in Anderson County; we see that in the number of new members joining the parish. So, we are hopeful, and we endeavor to reach out to the new residential areas being built, to the hotels and campgrounds, offering our information such as Mass times in an effort to be open and welcoming. God willing, we will continue to grow. May we be His good servants.”

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