As the parishioners of Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville marked the end of the parish’s 175th Jubilee year, Bishop J. Mark Spalding urged them to not only celebrate their past but to look to their future.
“In the history of this parish, they worked, they sacrificed and they suffered to make sure we could gather tonight,” Bishop Spalding said of those who built the parish, during his homily at the Mass closing the Jubilee year on Tuesday, Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
It’s the responsibility of the current parishioners to do the same for future parishioners, Bishop Spalding said. “It won’t just be the responsibility of the people on this side of the altar,” he said, pointing to the clergy. “It will be the responsibility of the people on this side as well,” gesturing to the people in the pews.
When the COVID-19 pandemic finally passes and the diocese can welcome everyone back to their churches, Bishop Spalding said, “I want you to think of every way possible to invite people back.”
“How do we fill this place up week in and week out,” and let the world know that the word of God is proclaimed at Immaculate Conception, he said.
Growing with the city
When Nashville’s first bishop, Bishop Richard Pius Miles, O.P., dedicated St. Mary’s Church, Clarksville’s first Catholic church, in December of 1844, Clarksville was a small city at the confluence of the Cumberland and Red rivers.
In the years since, that small city on the American frontier has become a growing, bustling city of more than 150,000 people. As Clarksville has grown, the Catholic parish, renamed Immaculate Conception Church in 1875, has grown with it, becoming one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of Nashville with about 2,100 active families.
It is a bustling parish with around 50 ministries, including Immaculate Conception School, an active Hispanic Ministry, Knights of Columbus council, Council of Catholic Women, Legion of Mary, RCIA core team, Haiti ministry, a successful pre-school program, and volunteers who visit parishioners in the hospital, nursing homes and are homebound, among others.
“This place is a very active parish,” said Father Jacob Dio, MSFS, who has been pastor at Immaculate Conception since the summer of 2019.
In its early years, the parish persevered through the Civil War and Reconstruction, economic depressions, and devastating fires. Despite those setbacks, the parish grew, built a school, and in 1880, dedicated a new church, which still stands today and is used by the parish as a chapel.
Clarksville, and Immaculate Conception with it, began to transform when the U.S. government bought 33,000 acres on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line just north of the city to build what would become Fort Campbell, today home to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
At the height of World War II, more than 100,000 men and women were stationed at Fort Campbell. With them, the city’s Catholic population began to grow.
The area has become more diverse as Fort Campbell soldiers have married spouses they met overseas and moved with them back home to the United States. The growing number of multi-national companies locating in Clarksville, and Austin Peay State University, also bring foreign-born people to the parish.
“There are a lot of different ethnicities, people from all over the world” in the parish, Father Dio said. “I’ve never seen a parish so diverse like this.”
Immaculate Conception opened its 175th Jubilee year with a Mass on Dec. 8, 2019, celebrated by Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop of St. Louis and Philadelphia who has retired to East Tennessee.
Father Dio and his staff were planning to celebrate the anniversary of the parish’s founding with several events through the year, but those plans were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was hard,” Father Dio said. “I thought about having some kind of spiritual conference, but we could not have that.”
Attendance at the jubilee’s closing Mass was also impacted by the pandemic. It was limited to 250 people to ensure proper social distancing, and parishioners had to have a ticket to attend.
However, the parish was able to complete some improvements to the church during the jubilee year, including installing a new altar, new flooring and new pews. Bishop Spalding blessed the flooring and pews and dedicated and consecrated the altar during the Mass to close the Jubilee year.
Returning to the parish to concelebrate the Mass were two of Immaculate Conception’s former pastors and several of its former associate pastors.
“Those who were here were very gracious to give their time for the parish,” Father Dio said. “I’m so very grateful they could come.”
He also gave a nod of appreciation to all the priests who have come before him at Immaculate Conception. “There were so many dedicated priests,” he said. “Great priests who really led this parish this far.”