In the more than two centuries since Smith County was founded, it has never been home to a Catholic church.
But a group of interested Catholics, led by Glenmary Home Missioner Father Don Tranel, have begun the work to establish a parish there.
“They’re pumped. They’re excited. They can’t wait,” Father Tranel said of the group.
On June 24, Father Tranel celebrated a Mass at the Carthage United Methodist Church that was attended by 81 people, including Father John Hammond, Vicar General of the Diocese of Nashville. It was the first publicly celebrated Mass ever in the county, Father Tranel said.
In a meeting after the Mass, Father Hammond said he nearly came to tears thinking about it being the first public Catholic Mass celebrated in Smith County. “That’s amazing,” he said. “May we celebrate a million more.”
“I never dreamed there’d be an interest in having (a parish) here,” said Martin Burns, who has lived in Smith County since 1983 and is a parishioner at St. Frances Cabrini Church in Lebanon.
Burns grew up in Donelson as a parishioner at Holy Rosary Church, where his family were charter members when that church was founded in the 1950s. Now he is following in his family’s footsteps and helping to establish another parish.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said.
Glenmary leads the effort
The Glenmary Home Missioners were founded in 1939 to bring the Catholic Church to people who live in counties, primarily in Appalachia and the rural South, where the Church is not effectively present.
The diocese invited Glenmary, which already staffs Holy Family Church in Lafayette, to research the possibility of starting a parish in Smith County, Father Tranel said. “The response was overwhelming.”
Father Tranel moved to Smith County in January 2021 to start laying the groundwork for a new parish. He spoke at Masses at St. Frances Cabrini, Holy Family and St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Cookeville to announce the effort. He then began gathering names and addresses of registered parishioners who live in Smith County.
“Once I got the names, I sent letters” inviting those interested in starting a Catholic church in Smith County to a meeting on May 27 at the Smith County Chamber of Commerce offices in Carthage. Thirty-four people showed up.
“They offered their gifts” for the effort, Father Tranel said. “To hear their stories, to hear their emotion, that was all kind of wonderful.”
Chris Woodard has been a parishioner at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville for 48 years. Even after her family moved to Smith County in 1986, she continued to drive one hour each way to Our Lady of the Lake.
“I tried going to closer parishes, but I didn’t feel the same family feeling” as at Our Lady of the Lake, Woodard said.
But when a friend from the parish who also lives in Smith County, Michael Manor, called to let her know about the May 27 organizing meeting, she reached out to Father Tranel.
When she attended the meeting and saw more than 30 people there, “I was going wow,” Woodard said. “I thought we would have eight or 10.”
“I was so impressed,” she added. “You could feel we were all striving to get this church together.”
The group scheduled a second meeting on June 24 that was attended by 81 people, including several people from surrounding parishes that were lending their support to the effort.
“It’s overwhelming to have this many people interested,” Woodard said. “The meetings were fantastic, and I think our numbers will grow.”
‘We’re just ecstatic’
The June 24 Mass was held on the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, which is six months before Christmas. In his homily, Father Tranel asked, “What will this community be six months from now on Christmas Eve?”
“There’s energy here in Smith County,” he said. “We want to share our Catholic faith with all Catholics in Smith County and all the non-Catholics.”
“Our faith doesn’t demand we know all the answers. Our faith only demands that we not be afraid of the questions,” he added. “And you know what, we’re not afraid.”
Michael Manor has been hoping the diocese would start at parish in Smith County for some time. His family have been attending Our Lady of the Lake since they moved to Middle Tennessee in 2009 and continued going there after moving to Smith County in 2014.
“We really connected to that community,” said Manor, who has served as the Grand Knight and Faithful Navigator of the Knights of Columbus council and Fourth Degree assembly at Our Lady of the Lake, as well as a catechist for the confirmation class there. He and his wife, Lisa, have seen all five of their children confirmed at Our Lady of the Lake.
But when he heard from a non-Catholic friend that people were starting a Catholic church in Smith County, he was quick to offer his help.
“We’re just ecstatic, absolutely excited about it,” Manor said.
“For me it’s a blessing. I truly believe the Holy Spirit is working,” Manor said at the June 24 meeting. “All it takes is all of us to make it happen.”
Finding a home
One of the first issues the community had to settle was scheduling a regular weekend Mass. At the June 24 meeting, Mia Foglio Miller, the Director of Youth Ministry at Carthage United Methodist Church who grew up in Nashville and graduated from St. Henry School and St. Cecilia Academy, offered the use of the Methodist Church facility to have Mass as the community forms.
“They’ve been so good to us,” Father Tranel said of the Methodist Church.
The first weekend Mass was held at 5 p.m. Saturday, July 3, and 54 people attended.
“It was a pretty good turnout,” Burns said. “I was pretty content with that.”
The community will continue celebrating Mass at the Methodist Church until it can find a more permanent home, Father Tranel said.
“In this endeavor you have to strike when the passion is high,” he said of the efforts to secure a permanent location. “You have to give the people something tangible.”
Father Tranel decided to start with the English-speaking community but said he will soon be reaching out to the Hispanic community in the area to invite them to join the effort to start a new church in Smith County.
“They will be invited to the table, and in due time we will devote lots of time and effort into this,” he said.
Father Hammond encouraged the community at the June 24 meeting. “Tell your friends, spread the word,” he said. “That’s your job to keep pointing to the Lamb of God.”
Bishop J. Mark Spalding “is with you in spirit,” Father Hammond said. “Our entire community of faith in Middle Tennessee is with you.”
Leaving a legacy
For Manor, Woodard, Burns and others, helping to establish a parish in Smith County means leaving their current parish – and the friends they made there – behind.
“It takes a lot of faith and trust to start a parish. It takes a lot of faith and trust to make the difficult decision to leave behind a community you love,” Father Hammond said during the June 24 meeting.
“I’ve had mixed emotions,” Woodard said. She is involved in several ministries at Our Lady of the Lake, “and the church family feeling is very strong,” she said.
But she’s fully committed to the Smith County project. “I think it’s God’s calling.”
“Being called to help with starting the church is something I feel I have to answer,” Woodard added.
“I’ve learned you don’t say no to God,” she said. “I’ve finally had to succumb and listen to God’s voice and do what he requests me to do. And the blessings and the pleasure I get from that know no bounds.”
Woodard has said her goodbyes to her friends at Our Lady of the Lake. “I need to be 100 percent committed” to the Smith County effort.
“It was a tough call” to leave St. Frances Cabrini, Burns said. “Father James, I love him to death. I think he’s very good for our parish,” he said of the parish’s pastor, Father James Panackal.
But he wants to support the effort in Smith County, Burns said.
“We have strong connections to Our Lady of the Lake,” Manor said. “But to me this is really bigger than myself or my family. It’s a huge legacy that we could leave for our kids and hopefully their kids down the road.”