A SMALL PARISH IN KNOXVILLE TENNESSEE
I hope you will bear with me over the next few days as I lead up to a very important Post of widespread value in t0-day's Church . This first post is by way of background. The following post will introduce you to the very interesting and powerful mind of Father Brent Shelton , as it began to form.But for now, please read on :
Townsend parish celebrates 50th birthday
ET Catholic news: Vol. 20, No. 19: Aug. 7, 2011
GIVING THANKS Bishop Richard F. Stika presided at St. Francis of Assisi Parish’s 50th-anniversary Mass on July 16. Above, Deacon Mike Nestor assists the bishop as parochial administrator Father Brent Shelton looks on. Photo by Dan McWilliams
St. Francis of Assisi members fill the church for a golden-anniversary Mass.
By Dan McWilliams
In 1961 an abandoned Methodist church in Townsend was converted into worship space for a new community of believers.
This summer that community—St. Francis of Assisi Parish—turned 50 years old.
Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated the parish’s golden-jubilee Mass on July 16 before some 130 who filled the church located near the banks of the Little River.
Father Brent Shelton, recently named parochial administrator of the parish, concelebrated. Assisting was Deacon Mike Nestor, who has served at St. Francis of Assisi since 1990.
“We celebrate at a church, formerly a Methodist church, dedicated for service to God’s people,” said the bishop in his opening remarks. “We remember in a very special way all those men and women who have come before us and have been a part of the establishment of this parish, the priests and the deacons who have served here, and all the many people who have been given the sacraments of Jesus Christ.”
St. Francis spent most of its first half-century as a mission of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa before the bishop established it canonically as a full parish in February 2010.
Bishop Stika in his homily gave thanks for the parishioners over the years who have lived up to one of their parish patron’s most famous sayings: “preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.”
“Yes, Lord, we give thanks to you for the past, but we pray that we and those who follow us will give glory to you, Lord, by faithfulness to the sacraments, by celebrating the Word, and by living our faith,” said the bishop.
The Townsend area was home to the Little River Lumber Co., which employed many Irish and Italian Catholic laborers, at the turn of the 20th century. John and James Shea of the company’s managerial staff were Catholics from Tioga, Pa., who were concerned that there was no Catholic church in the area. In 1904 they employed a teacher from Knoxville, Bridget Whelahan, who taught children from both non-Catholic and Catholic families in a cabin on Happy Top Hill.
East Tennessee’s circuit-riding priest of those days, Father Emmanuel F. Callahan, made Townsend part of his enormous mission field in 1905 and celebrated Mass about once a month in the John Shea family home until the Sheas moved to Knoxville in 1908.
When forest land in the area was purchased for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, dedicated in 1934, the lumber company closed and most of the workmen moved away. That made the Townsend Catholic mission unnecessary, but by 1960 many Catholics were among the tourists drawn to the area by the park. In that year Father John Baltz, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa, asked Dorothy E. Thompson—the only Catholic living in Townsend—to find a suitable building for celebrating Mass for the tourists.
LEADING THE PROCESSION Abby Rapien carries the crucifix at the start of St. Francis of Assisi’s 50th-anniversary Mass. Also seen are Father Brent Shelton (left) and Deacon Mike Nestor. Abby and sister Hailey served at Mass, and another sister, Delorean, was the cantor. All three are students at St. John Neumann School in Farragut. Photo by Dan McWilliams
More donations of furnishings poured in from sisters, Catholic nurses, and parishioners in Dayton, Ohio, and from other areas of the country.
“We give thanks to our Lord for the founders of this parish, for those around the country who donated different items and financially assisted this parish at its very beginning,” said Bishop Stika during the anniversary Mass.
On May 4, 1961, Father Baltz requested both an opening Mass and that the new mission be named for St. Francis of Assisi. The Mass was set for June 18, but before then reports came that the Ku Klux Klan was planning to burn down the church.
A local Methodist minister, the Rev. Perry Tanksley, preached a sermon against religious intolerance that is believed to have stopped the Klan’s action.
“It was a Methodist minister who came to the aid of the small Catholic population,” Bishop Stika said. “The Church is the mystical body of Christ, as Pope Pius XII talked about, so even if they had succeeded in burning down the church [building], they could never have destroyed the Church.“The Church is the people of God. The Church gathers together in a sacred building to celebrate what we celebrate now: the Eucharist, the holy sacrifice of the Mass. But the Church is people who have accepted the word of God into their hearts, who have allowed the seed of faith that was planted to flourish.”
John Shea was the father of two priests. Both Monsignor Harold Shea and Monsignor Francis R. Shea served the Diocese of Nashville, with the latter going on to become the bishop of Evansville, Ind. Monsignor Harold Shea was the celebrant of the first Mass at St. Francis of Assisi, and then–Father Francis Shea served as deacon.
Today St. Francis has some 65 families year-round, with tourists swelling the ranks at Mass during the summer months.
Father Shelton started his St. Francis assignment July 1, shortly after celebrating his 10th anniversary of priestly ordination June 16.
“We’re very happy to have you here, Bishop,” he said at the end of the anniversary Mass. “I know there has been a team of parishioners working on this visit since before I came.”
Bishop Stika concluded the liturgy by thanking the St. Francis parishioners “for being solid citizens of the Diocese of Knoxville.”
“In many ways you are ministers of hospitality for all the tourists who come through Tennessee, so I want to thank you for being the face of Jesus to one another in the parish but also for being the face of Jesus to those who visit this parish.”