Memphis celebrates 50 years as a diocese, rich history for the Church

A special Mass to read the proclamation establishing the Diocese of Memphis and to ordain and install its first bishop, Carroll Dozier, was held on Jan. 6, 1971, at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. Nearly 9,000 people attended. Concelebrating the Mass were: (from left) Bishop Dozier; Cardinal John Wright, Prefect of the Congregration for the Clergy; Archbishop Luigi Raimondi, Apostolic Delegate to the United States; Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler of the Diocese of Charleston in South Carolina; and Bishop Joseph Durick of Nashville. Tennessee Register file photo

Nearly from its founding in 1837, there were two poles in the Diocese of Nashville, which included the entire state of Tennessee. Nashville was where the diocesan governance was located, but Memphis was the vibrant heart of Catholicity in the state.

“Memphis was the tail that wagged the dog,” said Msgr. Owen Campion, a former editor of the Tennessee Register and a historian of the diocese. “Nashville was where the diocese was, but Memphis was where the action was, no doubt about it.” The Vatican recognized the strength of the Catholic community in Memphis and West Tennessee and the new Diocese of Memphis was established at a special Mass on Jan. 6, 1971.

The diocese originally planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding with a special Mass this month, but has moved the date to late spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be two 50th Anniversary Masses, one at 7 p.m. May 26 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis, and a second at 7 p.m. May 27 at St. Mary’s Church in Jackson.

‘Boom town’

The Diocese of Nashville’s first bishop, Richard Pius Miles O.P., had “a very daunting task,” Msgr. Campion said. When the diocese was established, “in the entire state of Tennessee, he was the only priest.” Bishop Miles called on his fellow Dominicans to help him build his diocese, eventually convincing them to take over Memphis’ first church, St. Peter’s, established in 1840. “They’re still there to this day,” Msgr. Campion said. Though younger than Nashville, Memphis grew quickly in the first half of the 19th century, and by 1860, its population of 22,000 had passed that of Nashville’s 19,000.

Much of the city’s growth was fueled by its location on the banks of the Mississippi River, a major artery for transporting people and goods, and its development as a major railroad hub, Msgr. Campion said.

“It was a boom town,” and the railroads were a key contributor to that growth, Msgr. Campion said.

As the city’s population grew, so too did its Catholic community. “There was a large influx of Irish. Then there was a large influx of Italians,” Msgr. Campion said. “At one time, Memphis had the largest community of Italian-Americans between Chicago and New Orleans.”

The city’s Catholic community had grown so large that after the Civil War there was talk of moving the episcopal see from Nashville to Memphis.

But then Memphis suffered several setbacks in the form of Yellow Fever outbreaks. “They were catastrophic,” Msgr. Campion said. “They had three yellow fever epidemics, which almost took the city out. There was such a horrendous loss of life. People fled and it created a reputation. People did not want to move there. Businesses did not want to move there.”

Catholic nuns and priests who stayed to care for the sick and dying, many of them succumbing to the Yellow Fever themselves, became heroes in the city, which showed its appreciation for years to come.

Eventually, the city of Memphis recovered. “It came back really vigorously,” Msgr. Campion said. “You move into the 20th Century, it definitely had recovered. It was booming again.”

A Catholic identity

As Memphis grew, so too did its Catholic population, in numbers and in prominence. “The Catholic community began to form a real identity and it was somewhat an identity different than the rest of the state,” Campion said. “Catholics in other parts of the state had not had that sort of privileged place.”

Besides individual Catholics who became prominent in the city, the Church itself carved out an outsized role for itself through institutions like St. Joseph Hospital, two Catholic colleges, Catholic high schools and elementary schools, a Catholic orphanage, a Catholic nursing home, and a growing number of parishes.

“It was just an established Catholic community,” Msgr. Campion said.

Talk resurfaced of moving the episcopal see from Nashville to Memphis, or of establishing a new Diocese of Memphis. “The question always was … can the rest of the state make it without Memphis,” Msgr. Campion said.

World War II put those discussions on hold. Nashville Bishop William Adrian resisted talk of forming a new diocese, arguing that the task at hand was building up the Diocese of Nashville to accommodate the growing Catholic population in the state in the post-War years, Msgr. Campion said. “There was a big boom in church building.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Church in Memphis and in the rest of Tennessee was caught up in the most important issue of the times, the Civil Rights movement.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. The Board of Education, which desegregated schools, “was a monumental moment in the history of Memphis,” Msgr. Campion said.

Desegregation wasn’t popular anywhere in the South, he said, but in some cities, like Nashville, the political and business leaders decided “we don’t like it, but we have to go with it,” Msgr. Campion said. In other cities, like Memphis, the leadership resisted desegregation.

At one time Memphis considered itself a rival of Atlanta and Dallas as major cities of the South, Msgr. Campion said. “My opinion is Memphis’ reluctance to accept segregation stopped its momentum,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question about it.”

A rift between the city’s Catholic community and Bishop Joseph Durick grew as the bishop became a prominent voice in support of the Civil Rights movement. “He was strong on Civil Rights,” said Msgr. Campion, who later served as Bishop Durick’s master of ceremonies. “That made him very unpopular in Memphis.”

In the late 1960s, when talk resurfaced of creating a new diocese for West Tennessee, Bishop Durick didn’t fight it. “I think probably Bishop Durick felt … it was Memphis’ time.”

New diocese established

“The process to create a new diocese is quite extensive,” Msgr. Campion said. “They would have looked at it in many ways.”

One question to be answered was whether the new diocese would have strong enough finances to maintain itself, Msgr. Campion said. “It wasn’t a question of whether Memphis could do it, it was could Nashville survive.”

Another was whether the new diocese would have enough priests to serve the people. “Probably half of the priests of the diocese were from Memphis,” Msgr. Campion said. Convinced that the resources and the need were there, Pope Paul VI, on Nov. 18, 1970, announced the formation of the Diocese of Memphis, covering the 21 counties west of the Tennessee River, and the appointment of its first bishop, Msgr. Carroll T. Dozier of the Diocese of Richmond in Virginia.

Bishop Dozier, who served in Memphis until 1982, was ordained as a bishop and installed, and the proclamation establishing the diocese was read during a Mass held Jan. 6, 1971, at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. Nearly 9,000 people attended.

“It was an enormous occasion,” said Msgr. Campion, who attended as a young priest. “They invited all the priests of the Nashville Diocese, so I went down for it. The hotel (where he was staying) was practically taken over with guests for that occasion.”

“It was a big, big thing,” he said. In his address at the end of the Mass, Bishop Dozier welcomed the people to the new diocese with an eye on the future.

“As we look to the future – and we are future-bound – we may ask ourselves, what kind of a Church shall we be? What kind of a Church do we want to be?”

“One in union with the Vicar of Christ, one dispensing the grace of God to all men, one anointing sorrow with sympathy, one of love and human kindness, a good Samaritan on the banks of the Mississippi. Is this not what we, this new Diocese of Memphis, wish to be? By the grace of God, so shall it be.”

The division of the two dioceses, worked out for both, Msgr. Campion said.

“The Memphis Catholic community is a blessing, it’s an example,” he said. “The Catholic people in Memphis have an enormous devotion to the Church, in every way. If you look at what they built down there, the image they created for the Church, absolute dedication, even heroism. It’s an image they created. It’s an image they created 150 years ago and kept going.

“The Catholic community … long ago has made itself an important part of the civic community,” Msgr. Campion said. “It’s an identity they should be proud of and one as a Tennessean that I am proud of.”

At age 94, Sister Sandra remains committed to transforming education

Sister Sandra Smithson, SSSF, helps a student at Smithson-Craighead Academy, Nashville’s first charter school that she founded with her late sister, Mary Craighead, in this file photo. Sister Sandra is currently donating all royalties from two of her recently re-published books to a scholarship fund for children in need to attend Catholic schools. File photo by Theresa Laurence

Sister Sandra Smithson, SSSF, age 94 and quarantined in her West Nashville home, is still hard at work on her mission of improving educational opportunities for poor and at-risk children. “I have to do something about it before I die,” she says matter-of-factly.

What she’s doing right now is re-publishing two of her books and donating all royalties to support scholarships for children attending some of the state’s “priority” public schools, “kids who have demonstrated the desire to learn more, who are coming out of abject poverty.”

Two of Sister Sandra’s books, a reflective nonfiction book, “From Out of the Shadows: Doubt in the Service of Faith and Other Paradoxes,” and a fictional allegory story for young readers, “Alegro and the Very Imperfect Poodle,” are now available for sale through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Ingram booksellers.

The royalty money from the book sales, she said, “is for kids who are already shining brightly and could shine more brightly if they had better opportunities.”

In the past, with support from one of her major benefactors, the late Catholic businessman and philanthropist Jim Carrell, Sister Sandra was able to identify promising Metro Nashville Public School students and send them to Father Ryan High School, Pope John Paul II High School, and Subiaco Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Arkansas. 

“We’ve had very good results with scholarships” in the past, said Sister Sandra, with recipients going on to study at Morehouse College, Vanderbilt University and others. 

Now, she wants to revive that scholarship program, and she’s hoping to jumpstart fundraising through her book sales. Ultimately, she said, the money will go to Catholic schools to help pay tuition for promising students in need who could not otherwise afford the tuition.

“I’m appealing to the Catholic community to support the scholarship fund to help the kids most in need who are not being served in our public school system,” she said. 

Sister Sandra, a Nashville native whose family was one of the founding members of St. Vincent de Paul Church in North Nashville, has dedicated her ministry to education, especially to serving poor children. A member of the School Sisters of St. Francis for more than 60 years, Sister Sandra has taught in Nashville, Chicago, Milwaukee, Costa Rica and Honduras. 

She and her sister, the late Mary Craighead, also a renowned educator, founded Nashville’s first public charter school in 2003, designed to serve children who were attending some of the district’s lowest performing “priority schools.”

Smithson-Craighead Academy in Madison continues to draw children from around Davidson County, but Sister Sandra wants to reach beyond the walls of that school to better serve as many children as possible who are falling behind in school. 

She knows that not every deserving student will have the opportunity to receive a scholarship to attend Catholic schools, so she remains committed to finding new ways to improve the educational experience for these students. 

Working with partners on the Metro Nashville Public School Board and on Metro Council, Sister Sandra hopes to introduce some new tutoring programs and approaches to learning at the district’s lowest performing schools. “I’m very concerned about these priority schools that are primarily inhabited by minority, poor children,” she said. 

She’s been exploring a partnership with SkyLearn, which provides individualized, online tutorials to improve students’ reading and math skills. With this program, Sister Sandra said, “kids learn by individual achievement,” and they will be fully prepared academically to move onto the next grade level. 

“When children are behind in literacy and language, that’s a major stopper,” she said, keeping them from staying engaged in school. If children do not gain the literacy skills they need at a young age, they are more likely to drop out of school and engage in riskier behavior, often leading to incarceration, Sister Sandra said. 

“We really do have to do something about the poor in the public school system,” she said. “How can we not try to do something?”

Diocese moves to virtual work to show support for governor’s order

After Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order asking businesses to have their employees work from home when possible, the Diocese of Nashville decided to have its employees begin working remotely beginning Dec. 22 and continuing through Jan. 11, 2021.

“The Diocese of Nashville has been receiving inquiries as it relates to any plans, given the recent address on Sunday, December 20th and an Executive Order from Governor Lee,” diocesan Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Brian Cooper said in a statement. “With the heightened levels of COVID-19 cases and deaths occurring throughout Tennessee, the diocese wishes to demonstrate solidarity and show support with the governor’s initiative, taking proper and extra precautions during this critical timeframe.”

Diocesan employees already were scheduled to be off for the Christmas holidays beginning Dec. 24 and returning on Monday, Jan. 4.

Employees at diocesan offices and ministries at the Catholic Pastoral Center will work virtually Jan. 4-11, and then begin to transition back to in-person operations, according to Cooper.

“All Offices and Ministries will be in-person at the CPC no later than Tuesday, January 19, 2021, following the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday,” Cooper said. “While the CPC remains a very safe working environment, these actions are being taken out of an abundance of caution and to show solidarity with the governor’s initiative.”

When the staff is working virtually, offices may be contacted by email or phone during normal business hours.

Catholic Schools scheduled to return Jan. 4

The diocesan Catholic schools returned from Christmas break to in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 4.

Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Hammel and school principals met on Dec. 30 to re-evaluate and assess current community conditions caused by the COVID-19 virus  and determined that returning to in-person learning was viable with all the necessary precautions in place.

“School leaders are united in their determination that the strong protocols developed last summer, in direct consultation with public health experts in Nashville, have provided safe environments in our schools and provided a clear framework to respond to infections that have occurred,” Cooper said.

Mass attendance not limited by governor’s order

In an address to the public on Sunday, Dec. 20, the governor noted that the state is seeing about 10,000 new cases of the COVID-19 virus every day, with more than 100 deaths daily.

“We are in a global pandemic that’s been crippling our country for months and now Tennessee is ground zero for a surge in sickness,” Lee said. “We are in a war. With the arrivals of the first vaccine, we have launched an offensive that will end this war. But it is the next few weeks that is going to be the most critical for our state.”

In his executive order, the governor called for a limit of 10 people for indoor social gatherings unless there is room for groups to maintain 6 feet of social distance from other groups.

The order specifically states that the 10-person limit does not apply to religious worship services, although places of worship are strongly encouraged to continue to follow safety protocols and to livestream worship services online.

The diocese’s 58 churches will continue to follow the safety protocols that have been in place for several months, including social distancing, required masking, and limited occupancy. Many of the churches are also livestreaming Masses.

The dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation continues to be in effect indefinitely, and Bishop J. Mark Spalding has consistently encouraged people to protect their health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who have an active ongoing illness (including infection, flare of a chronic illness, etc.), anyone over the age of 65, those with a history of heart failure, lung disease, diabetes, ongoing malignancy, any immunosuppressive disorder, those on steroids or other immunosuppressive medications, those who have been advised by a health care professional not to attend Mass, and those who live with anyone with any health vulnerability, are strongly encouraged to remain at home at this time and watch Mass online or via television.

Additionally, those who are worried that attending Mass would add undue stress or jeopardize their health or the health of a person with whom they live, are also encouraged to remain at home.

Catholic Charities announces first hires for Tennessee Serves Neighbors program

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is gilbert.jpg

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Nashville has filled the first three positions for its new Tennessee Serves Neighbors program that will expand Catholic Charities services to five additional Middle Tennessee counties over the next 12 months.

The new hires include: Loleetha Gilbert as County Program Expansion Director, David Pemberton as Human Resources Manager, and Rebecca Nichols as Volunteer/Student Intern Manager.

Tennessee Serves Neighbors was created with a $7.3 million grant from the Tennessee Department of Human Services as part of its nationally recognized Two-Generation (2Gen) approach to helping families. Each 2Gen grant is funded by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families federal program.


According to Catholic Charities Executive Director Judy K. Orr, the Tennessee Serves Neighbors is the biggest one-year expansion in the organization’s history.

“Our first three hires were strategic and significant because the success of Tennessee Serves Neighborsdepends on creating strong teams and community involvement in each new county,” said Orr. “I’m thrilled that professionals as accomplished as Loleetha, David and Rebecca wanted to join our team and lead this bold new concept.”

“I’m honored to join the network of services under Catholic Charities and lead such an important project,” said Gilbert. “Each family resource center will operate independently based on what its county needs while also sharing best practices among county teams, so we collectively help more of our neighbors most in need.”


Gilbert has more than 11 years’ experience working for the Tennessee Department of Human Services. Most recently she oversaw the federally funded Childcare Certification Program for Middle Tennessee. She also held additional positions writing plans and managing state workforce programs at the Tennessee Department of Workforce and Labor Development.

Gilbert holds a Bachelor of Science degree and graduated Cum Laude from Tennessee State University.

Pemberton brings more than a decade of non-profit human resources management experience to his new position with Catholic Charities. He most recently served as Human Resources Manager at the Mid-Cumberland Community Action Agency. He also served in top human resources roles at The United Methodist Publishing House and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Pemberton previously worked for Catholic Charities as the Department Director, Family Assistance and Community Employment Services. He left the organization in 2008 when funding for that program ended. “He is beloved by those who previously worked for him,” said Orr.

In his new position with Catholic Charities, Pemberton will oversee the recruiting and hiring of the teams in each county as well as additional program staff for all of Tennessee Serves Neighbors.

“Joining a program at the beginning is always a joy,” said Pemberton. “Recruiting the right teams in every county will be key to our success.”

Pemberton received a Bachelor of Science degree from Purdue University.

Nichols’ expertise in managing and training volunteers fulfills a key promise to tap the faith communities, especially the Catholic Church network in each of the target counties. This was one the primary reasons Catholic Charities was selected as a top 2Gen recipient.

Nichols will manage the acquisition of student interns from programs such as the University of Tennessee School of Social Work.

“Tennessee Serves Neighbors can be model for training the next generation of social workers and engaging volunteers to help their neighbors in need,” said Nichols.

Nichols joins Catholic Charities after 20 years at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. As Senior House Manager, she was responsible for recruiting, hiring and training all staff as well as overseeing capital projects.

Nichols received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Fairmount State University and Master of Fine Arts from Florida State University.

The primary goal of Tennessee Serves Neighbors is to create family resource centers in Montgomery, Maury, Marshall, Bedford and Coffee counties in its first year then expand to Grundy, Warren, White, Dekalb, and Putnam counties in its second year. A family resource center is a central location where residents can access a wide variety of services tailored to the individual needs of the community, including help in an immediate crisis as well as ongoing services that reduce the overall reliance on government services.

To read more about the Tennessee Serves Neighbors program, see this story:

Editorial: Pandemic has brought the necessity to find new ways to live our faith

Wearing masks and social distancing at Mass has become part of the routine at churches in the Diocese of Nashville since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parishes and the diocese have found new ways to maintain a connection with parishioners during the pandemic. Tennessee Register file photo by Rick Musacchio

They say necessity is the mother of invention. That’s probably never been truer than in 2020.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced people into their homes to protect themselves and their families, churches were faced with a new challenge: how to keep people connected to their church, each other and the faith.

The Diocese of Nashville, like dioceses and churches around the world, was forced to find new ways to safely proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, welcoming all.

Technology and the internet provided some answers. When Bishop J. Mark Spalding, like his brother bishops throughout the nation, issued a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation to keep people safe, a few parishes were already livestreaming Masses online. Others quickly made preparations to do the same.

Parishes saw other opportunities to use the internet. Priests recorded videos of themselves discussing the readings for the upcoming weekend Masses. Adult faith formation programs used online formats to bring people together for discussions.  

When attendance at Mass was limited to ensure proper social distancing, some parishes moved their Masses outdoors to allow more people to attend and spread out.

Priests had to find new ways to hear confessions while keeping their parishioners and themselves safe.

Schools at first had to figure out distance learning when they closed their buildings early in the pandemic last spring, then had to re-think the way they did everything to safely invite their students and teachers back into the classroom for in-person learning. They wore masks or face shields or both, spread their desks out, limited movement through the halls, and ate lunch at their desks. While many schools have opted for distance learning during the pandemic, which can disrupt family life and student achievement, our diocesan schools have worked hard to stay open using the many safety protocols they have implemented.

Diocesan events and ministries have also been affected, although they’ve carried on. Bishop Spalding ordained two new priests before a limited, masked and socially distant crowd at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. Diocesan speaker series became online events. Important fundraisers moved online yet still managed to generate enough donations to support the various ministries of the diocese, all thanks to the wonderful generosity of the people of the diocese.

Some of these efforts have opened our eyes to new ways to doing things and reaching people that will continue after the pandemic comes to an end.

Although the work-arounds have been successful, they are not seamless replacements. 

Watching Mass on a laptop or a television allows us to participate in the Liturgy of the Word and in an Act of Spiritual Communion, but there are some things it can’t allow us to do. It can’t allow us that same sense of community that we feel when a group of people worship together in the same place shaking hands or embracing during the Sign of Peace, or holding hands as they pray the Our Father together. 

It doesn’t allow us the opportunity to catch up with friends over a donut and a cup of coffee after Mass. 

It doesn’t allow us the opportunity to kneel before the body and blood of Christ, the source and summit of our faith.

We look forward to the day when we can gather together safely once again. It still may be months away, but finally, with the approval of a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus, there is a sense that it is coming. 

Until then, we’ll keep working around the restrictions the pandemic has forced on us. We’ll continue to find new ways to use technology to maintain a connection to our faith community. We’ll continue to wear masks and keep socially distanced not only to protect ourselves, but to protect everyone we meet. We’ll continue to pray. We’ll continue to take joy in the celebrations of the liturgical year, such as Christmas. We’ll continue to bring the light of Christ to the world in any way we can. We’ll continue to invent new ways to live the faith.

Ladies of Charity programs ease hunger in the community

The Ladies of Charity prepared nearly 800 Christmas baskets of food to be distributed to those in need. The organization increased the number of boxes it will distribute this year because of greater need caused by the coronavirus. Helen Bussell, right, helps Diana Boyd of Christ the King Church fill one of the Christmas baskets.
Photo by Andy Telli

The Ladies of Charity boosted their annual Christmas Basket program this year to help more families struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s been a lot more hunger,” said Margie Druffel, chair of the Christmas Basket program.

The organization prepared 797 boxes of food this year, Druffel said. “We started out planning for 700 but the need was so much higher,” she said. “You can’t say no.”

Each box had enough food for several meals for a family, including: a ham, salmon, rice, beans, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, soup, peanut butter, jelly, bread, eggs, canned goods, fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, bread, and a can of black-eyed peas “for good luck for the new year,” Druffel said.

Members assembled the boxes on Friday, Dec. 18, and then distributed them on Saturday, Dec. 19, to parishes and other organizations, which in turn handed them out to people in need.

The program is funded with donations from Ladies of Charity members, Druffel said. The parochial schools in the area “collect food for us and help us a lot,” Druffel said. “This year is really heroic considering how hard it is just to run a school” during the pandemic, she added.

Besides the Christmas Basket program, the Ladies of Charity have been working to ease hunger in the community in other ways. The organization received a federal CARES Act grant for $39,000 and used that money to prepare 350 bags of groceries every week since September to distribute to those in need, Druffel said.

The grocery bags of food were distributed through parishes, area public schools and other organizations.

Catholic Charities focuses on meeting ‘Basic Needs’ during holiday season

Helping people most in need and who have nowhere else to turn is a core purpose of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Nashville.

Catholic Charities provides emergency assistance for individuals and families under a program called “Basic Needs.” The number of people in need has never been greater than in 2020, as the pandemic, the tornado, and other challenges have pushed Middle Tennessee families to their limits.

Food assistance requests have increased by 50 percent in 2020 over 2019. Requests for assistance with rent, utilities and/or mortgage payments have increased by 30-40 percent over the previous year as well.

The most requested forms of assistance are:

  • Paying overdue rent or mortgage to avoid evictions.
  • Paying overdue electric and water bills to prevent service shutoff.
  • Providing free diapers for infants.
  • Providing food assistance in the form of meals or gift cards to local grocery stores.

“Providing ‘Basic Needs’ to our neighbors in need is one of the most satisfying parts of our work,” said Catholic Charities Executive Director Judy K. Orr. “With a single phone call, clients have access to a team of experienced case managers who can quickly assess needs and provide short-term help.”

Catholic Charities has expanded its hunger-relief programs significantly this year. In addition to “Loaves & Fishes,” a long-time program of the nonprofit that provides meals three days a week to the homeless, new programs include food pantries at multiple sites where eligible families can pick up food boxes and partnerships with local restaurants to provide to-go meals.

“Basic Needs” services are available to Nashville residents experiencing financial difficulties. Anyone can call Catholic Charities at 615-352-3087 to request help and speak to a case manager.

Applicants may have to provide documentation required to qualify for assistance. Catholic Charities will contact landlords, mortgage companies, and utility companies directly to arrange approved payments.

Much of the support for “Basic Needs” comes from individual donations from community members.

Donations to help Catholic Charities meet “Basic Needs” in the community are greatly appreciated and can be made at

Father Johnston’s 50 years of ministry have centered around building authentic communities of faith

Father Mike Johnston, who served as pastor of St. Henry Parish for nearly 25 years, opens the door to the new church ahead of the dedication Mass in 2006. Overseeing a major expansion of St. Henry School and the building of a new church were among Father Johnston’s biggest accomplishments during his time at St. Henry, one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of Nashville. photo by Rick Musacchio

When Father Mike Johnston reflects on his 50 years of priesthood, some of the most significant moments that come to mind involve family, community and St. Henry Church, the parish where he spent half of his life as a pastor before retiring in 2015. 

“I think about celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary,” in 1981, with Mass at St. Henry, where they were parishioners. It was a joyous occasion that brought his whole family together.

He also thinks about dedicating the new St. Henry church building in 2006, when he was pastor. “That took a whole lot of work on the part of a whole lot of people,” Father Johnston said. 

The dedication of the new church was “profound,” because “it brought together not only the bricks and mortar, but also the forming of community and the relationships that unfolded as a result.”

This weekend, Father Johnston will return to St. Henry to celebrate his 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood on Dec. 18, 1970. Parishioners will host a drive-by celebration for their former pastor on Friday, Dec. 18, and Father Johnston will celebrate the 5 p.m. Mass on Saturday, Dec. 19. “It’s still home,” he said of St. Henry.

Voted out of retirement

After he retired, Father Johnston maintained his connection with friends and St. Henry parishioners. He offered spiritual direction and attended retreats for his own spiritual nourishment. He was enjoying a slower pace of life, but then God had other plans for him.

Father Mike Johnston talks with Bishop J. Mark Spalding in the bishop’s office at the Catholic Pastoral Center shortly after he was named as the new bishop of the Diocese of Nashville in November 2017. After Bishop David Choby died in June 2017, Father Johnston was elected Administrator of the diocese and led the diocese while it was without a bishop for eight months. photo by Rick Musacchio

Father Johnston was called out of retirement in 2017 to serve as administrator of the Diocese of Nashville after the death of Bishop David Choby. “That was a challenging experience,” he said of the eight months he led the diocese, helping it prepare for a new bishop.

Father Johnston was elected as administrator by the College of Consultors, a group of 12 local priests serving the diocese. The election was held, as required by canon law, when a diocese becomes vacant as it did when Bishop Choby died June 3, 2017. 

During that time, Father Johnston said he looked to answer one big question: “What can we do together to prepare the diocese for the next bishop?”

A diocesan administrator does not make new initiatives for a diocese, but he does have to make decisions that impact people’s lives. 

After Father Johnston was elected, one of his first tasks was to finalize priest assignments, which happens annually in June. As administrator, Father Johnston said, “I got a new appreciation that there’s nothing easy about decision-making. 

“You realize how everything is connected,” he said, “and the complexity of what a bishop has to do.”

As administrator, Father Johnston said, he was guided by the same principles that guided him as a pastor: “being respectful, listening, and asking forgiveness when you don’t do it well.”

Role model and friend

Those who know Father Johnston well appreciate both his pastoral leadership and his authentic friendship.

Camp Marymount, the Diocese of Nashville’s overnight camp and year-round retreat center, played a big part in Father Mike Johnston’s life; he attended camp there in the summer, and currently serves on the board of directors. He is pictured on the left in this undated file photo.

“We love Father Mike,” said Tommy Hagey, director of Camp Marymount and former parish council president at St. Henry. When St. Henry was going through the major changes of expanding the school and building a new church, Father Johnston’s “pastoral leadership was incredible,” said Hagey. 

Father Johnston is the kind of priest who can oversee complicated parish and diocesan decisions, but also enjoy a casual conversation and a good meal. “He’s down to earth, a real person,” said Hagey. He and his wife Margaret and their eight children have enjoyed dinners with Father Johnston over the years; he celebrated a special Mass for the Hageys’ 25th wedding anniversary in their home. “It’s truly been a blessing for us to have a relationship with him,” Hagey said. 

With over 2,000 registered families, St. Henry is one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of Nashville, and offers dozens of ministries for parishioners to find their niche. To keep everything running smoothly, Father Johnston relied on a robust combination of deacons, staff members and volunteers.

For the quarter century that he led St. Henry, Father Johnston saw the parish grow and change, relishing the opportunity “to be involved in people’s lives in a lot of ways,” as they marked the milestones of life from baptisms to funerals. 

His successor as pastor of St. Henry, Father Mark Beckman, said that, “to this day I’m impressed with everything he did to make it such a vibrant parish.”

Father Beckman was still a transitional deacon when he first served alongside Father Johnston, at. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory in the 1980s. “He really was a role model, the ideal pastor,” Father Beckman said. From the way he planned liturgies to how he engaged with parish staff and volunteers, “he’s given me a lasting model of how to lead a parish,” Father Beckman said. 

Vocation and ministry

Father Johnston’s roots in the Diocese of Nashville run deep: he grew up in Christ the King Parish, attended Camp Marymount in the summers, and remembers that almost all of the counselors at that time were seminarians. “They seemed to have so much joy and happiness,” he said. His first counselor was Father Charley Giacosa, who would later serve the final years of his life alongside Father Johnston at St. Henry.

Msgr. George Rohling, one of Father Johnston’s predecessors as pastor of St. Henry, was also an example to him. “There was a great depth of spirituality and involvement in parish life” at St. Henry under Msgr. Rohling’s leadership, he said. 

“He’s always been very loyal to Marymount, speaking on the value of camp and the strong role it played in his development as a person and a priest,” Hagey said of Father Johnston’s commitment to Marymount, the diocese’s overnight summer camp and year-round retreat center.

In addition to model priests and seminarians, Father Johnston’s path to the priesthood was also inspired by his parents, “good, solid, involved parishioners at Christ the King,” and his three older brothers, who all offered “tremendous support” for his vocation over the years. 

After graduating from Father Ryan High School in 1963, Father Johnston entered St. John’s Seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas, then went on to spend four years at the North American College in Rome.

His years in the seminary, from 1963-1971, were filled with a sense of excitement about the Church and the future, as the Church was beginning to grapple with the changes of Vatican II. 

“Right after Vatican II there was a special spirit in the Church,” he said. “With Pope Francis we’ve re-captured it.”

After he was ordained in late 1970, Father Johnston was assigned to teach at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga and serve as associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, alongside Father James Niedergeses, who would later become bishop of Nashville. “He was so influential in my life,” Father Johnston said of the late Bishop Niedergeses. 

Father Mike Johnston, who served as pastor of St. Henry Church for nearly 25 years, from 1991-2015, talks with office staff in this 2015 file photo. photo by Theresa Laurence

Father Johnston was then named principal at Knoxville Catholic High School, and after that, pastor of St. Stephen. While at St. Stephen, he also served as the vocations director for the diocese. 

Father Johnston served at St. Stephen until he began his tenure at St. Henry in 1991, where he remained until his retirement in 2015.

As he reflects on 50 years of ministry, Father Johnston shares one final thought: “The priesthood is not about the priest, it’s about the Lord, loving the people and serving them, and celebrating the sacraments in a way that brings life to them.”

Fr. Mike Johnston will celebrate his 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood on Dec. 18th.

St. Henry Church will host a drive-by celebration on Friday, Dec. 18, 1-3 p.m. He will be there to greet people from a distance.

Father Johnston will celebrate the 5 p.m. Mass at St. Henry on Saturday, Dec. 19.

Space is limited in the church, and a live stream of the Mass will be available for people who are unable to attend.

More information is available at

Pope’s pandemic year in review: Prayer, online meetings, hopes for change

Pope Francis prays in front of the “Miraculous Crucifix” from the Church of St. Marcellus in Rome during a prayer service in an empty St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in this March 27, 2020, file photo. With COVID-19 already a crisis around the globe, the pope’s prayer service that night drew the world’s attention. CNS photo/Vatican Media

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Like everyone else, Pope Francis’ 2020 was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lockdowns, livestreamed Masses, video messages and even something akin to Zoom meetings became a regular part of his life, just like for millions of people around the world.

But when he walked alone into St. Peter’s Square March 27 for an “extraordinary moment of prayer,” Pope Francis was unlike anyone else.

Standing in the rain, he articulated the world’s suffering.

And before blessing the city and the world with the Blessed Sacrament, he began what would become months of pleading with people to use the crisis as an opportunity to rethink the way they treat their neighbors and the way they decide what and how much to buy, as well as to ask themselves larger questions about ways to make the global economy more fair and more respectful of the environment.

The year began normally enough. Italy’s severe lockdown went into effect less than three weeks after the 15th and final group of U.S. bishops made their weeklong “ad limina” visits to Rome to pray at the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, to meet Vatican officials and to spend more than two hours in a freewheeling conversation with Pope Francis.

Pope Francis told members of each group that a bishop must be close to God, close to his priests and close to his people. And, part of the way through the “ad liminas,” he began talking about the importance of bishops being close to one another. Several bishops said the admonition was a recognition of how election-year political divisions in the U.S. risked dividing U.S. Catholics as well.

The topics in the “ad limina” conversations with the pope included: the clerical sexual abuse scandal; youth and young adult ministry; being joyful witnesses of the Gospel; creating a more welcoming environment for migrants and refugees; abortion and the sanctity of all human life; racism; safeguarding the environment; the growing Spanish-speaking Catholic population; and the importance of Catholic schools.

And, repeatedly, U.S. bishops asked the pope to release, as promised, a report on how Theodore E. McCarrick managed to rise to the position of cardinal and archbishop of Washington despite decades of rumors of sexual misconduct. The report finally was released Nov. 10.

Also in the pre-pandemic period, Pope Francis released “Querida Amazonia,” his apostolic exhortation reflecting on themes discussed during the 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Amazon. Some people were hoping or fearing that he would mention the idea of ordaining married men to the priesthood so that far-flung Catholic communities would have regular access to the Eucharist.

Instead, he focused on encouraging more missionaries to devote at least part of their lives to serving the communities and on efforts to ensure the rights of the region’s poor and indigenous are respected, local cultures are preserved, nature is protected, and the Catholic Church is present and active with “Amazonian features.”

While the pope said “Querida Amazonia” was his “dream” for that region of South America, his encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” addressed burning social, political and religious issues on a global scale and his dream for a world marked by greater solidarity and concern for the poor and the Earth.

Published Oct. 4, the encyclical insisted Christians, and all people of goodwill, must recognize that they are brothers and sisters and start living that way.

Doing that, he wrote, would mean recognizing and taking concrete action against “certain trends in our world that hinder the development of universal fraternity” and of acting as a neighbor to one another, including racism, extremism, “aggressive nationalism,” closing borders to migrants and refugees, polarization, politics as a power grab rather than a service to the common good, mistreatment of women, modern slavery and economic policies that allow the rich to get richer but do not create jobs and do not help the poor.

Pope Francis spent much of the year trying to get his own house in order, too.

On the first of the year, Jesuit Father Juan Antonio Guerrero began working as prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, a position that had been vacant since Australian Cardinal George Pell took a leave of absence in 2017 to fight charges of sexual abuse in his homeland.

In June, the pope approved new laws governing the awarding of Vatican contracts with rules designed to prevent fraud and corruption, including barring Vatican employees from awarding contracts to their relatives.

And, as questions continued over the Vatican’s massive financial loss in a property investment deal in London, in late September Pope Francis forced the resignation of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who had been instrumental in making the deal before being appointed prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.

In November, after the Vatican Secretariat of State missed a papally imposed deadline to hand over the management and monitoring of its financial assets to two separate Vatican bodies, Pope Francis set up a commission to make the transfer and external oversight happen. The London property deal was made with funds from the Secretariat of State when Cardinal Becciu worked there.

Throughout the year, the pope and his international Council of Cardinals also continued working on the new constitution governing a reorganized Roman Curia; as the year ended, the council was reviewing suggested amendments.

As he has done every year since 2014, Pope Francis created new cardinals, adding 13 prelates — including Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington — to the College of Cardinals in a November ceremony.

Like everything else the previous nine months, the consistory was held with COVID-19 restrictions in place. Cardinals from outside the European Union were tested for the coronavirus and quarantined for 10 days before the ceremony. Each was allowed a maximum of 10 guests, though those who came from abroad had fewer. And the public reception to greet the new cardinals was canceled.

As the year was ending, the Vatican announced it would vaccinate all its residents and employees early in 2021 and that Pope Francis plans to travel to Iraq in March — both signs of hope that the pandemic’s days are numbered.

Celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe, honoring the Virgin Mary, is one of the most important feast days of the year for Catholics of Mexican descent, a celebration of faith and national identity. Special Masses were held this year in the Diocese of Nashville, but festivities were restricted by the pandemic. Parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Nashville attended one of five Masses celebrated at the church on the feast day, Saturday, Dec. 12. The parish held so many Masses to spread out the crowds attending Mass on the popular feast day. Bishop J. Mark Spalding  celebrated one of the Masses.