For Maureen Gannon, what started as a search for a new parish to potentially call home has become a multi-year pilgrimage to visit all 60 churches that make up the Diocese of Nashville across Middle Tennessee.
Gannon, a Ph.D. scientist who runs a diabetes research lab at Vanderbilt University, has been a parishioner of St. Ann Church in Nashville for more than 15 years, but when her son, Erik, a 2017 graduate of St. Ann School and a 2021 graduate of Pope John Paul II Preparatory School, headed off to college, she started wondering if it was time for a change.
“I thought, ‘You know, people have changed in the parish, and I didn’t really know anybody anymore,” Gannon explained. “‘Maybe it’s time to see if I still want to go there, or if I want to go somewhere else.’”
She began by visiting other area churches such as Christ the King and St. Henry in Nashville, and St. Matthew in Franklin.
“Then I was thinking, ‘How many churches are there in the Nashville diocese?’ I looked it up, and there were 60,” she said. “I was just blown away. How can that be? I said to my husband, ‘I kind of want to see them all.’”
Thus, her journey began, starting with those churches within the Nashville and Davidson County area and expanding out to Cookeville, Smyrna, Columbia, Franklin, and more. She visited her 41st church, Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville, on Sunday, Jan. 22.
“My radius has just gotten bigger and bigger,” she said.
“It’s been so amazing” visiting them all, she added. “I love looking at the architecture, and not only the building architecture, but the artwork, the paintings, the stained-glass windows, the mediums the stations are in. Are they carved? Are they marble? Are they paintings? Are they colored or all white? I look at all that.”
The architecture isn’t all that’s been amazing, she said. The people have been amazing, too.
When she visited the Church of the Korean Martyrs off Lebanon Pike in Donelson, she said, the greeter welcomed her and offered to sit with her in the pew, and the pastor, Father Seondo Bang, welcomed her at the beginning of Mass and even translated his homily into English for her.
“They were absolutely wonderful,” Gannon said.
She noted similar experiences at other churches including Holy Name in East Nashville, St. Vincent de Paul in North Nashville, and St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows in downtown Nashville.
“Everybody has been really welcoming,” she said. When she shares the story of her journey with the various congregations, they all ask the same thing.
“They ask, ‘When you finish going to all 60, are you going to go back to St. Ann?’ The answer, ‘I don’t know,’ but several continue saying, ‘You’re going to choose us, right? We’re the best right?’” Gannon explained. “To see the pride that they have in their parish and the enthusiasm is so amazing.
“I have so many stories to tell of all the people that I’ve met, and it’s been great,” she continued, noting how attending St. Martha Church in Ashland City was her first experience of a Mass celebrated ad orientem, with the priest and the congregation facing in the same direction toward the crucifix behind the altar.
“That was really interesting to me,” she said.
Although she’s grateful for the experience, and she has loved each parish she’s visited thus far, Gannon said three have stood out.
First, St. Lawrence Church in Joelton.
Father Edwige Carré “used to be the pastor of St. Ann, and his joy for the faith is so contagious. I went there for Easter last year,” Gannon explained. “He opened the Mass by saying, ‘Welcome to the best hour of the week,’ and it should be the best hour of the week. That joy, that exuberance I just love, and you could feel it in the whole congregation.”
The second standout has been St. Vincent de Paul.
“I felt so welcomed there, and the choir was amazing,” she said. “The sense of community was really nice there, too. Plus, the other thing that I liked about there was one of my colleagues at Vanderbilt is a parishioner there.
“In science, it’s sometimes hard to find connections with people of faith, so I like that one of my friends and colleagues is a parishioner there,” Gannon said.
The third is Holy Name.
“I enjoyed meeting those people so much, and the music was great,” she said. “The diversity in the community with so many kids just made me really happy.”
But she still has 19 more to see, and as she journeys farther in the diocese, she said, she plans to make getaway weekends out of them.
“I’m really excited to go to some of the ones that are closer to Alabama,” Gannon said. “I feel like, not only am I going to feel like I completed the circle of this journey, but also, it’s taking me to parts of Tennessee and communities that I may never have visited otherwise.
“I feel like that’s really enriching my life,” she added.
Throughout her journey, although it’s introduced her to different kinds of people, different styles of architecture, and different musical styles for worship, it’s reminded her of the beauty of the universality of the Catholic faith.
“That’s the best part about being Catholic. I travel all over the world for work, and I go to church wherever I am if available, and it doesn’t matter where I am, what country I’m in, what language they’re speaking, it’s all the same,” Gannon said. “It’s such a connection and a thread with everybody in the whole world. Every church that Sunday, with the prayers and the readings, I feel such a connection with every Catholic, and it’s an overwhelming, overpowering feeling to be a part of something bigger like that through history.”
It’s connected her to the history of the diocese, too, as she’s learned about the churches that have been around for more than 100 years.
“When I go to those places, I try to envision what it was like here 150 years ago,” she said.
To learn more, she purchased the “Diocese of Nashville: Family of Faith” history book that the diocese recently released. The 240-page photographic history book showcases the 185-year legacy of architecture, service, and impact of every church across the diocese.
Gannon said she was so excited when she learned of the book.
“When this all started, I was really just looking to see if I was going to switch churches in Nashville, and then it became something bigger,” Gannon said. “And I started to have regrets. I said to my husband that I should’ve been keeping a journal, and taking pictures, and writing down my impressions, but I didn’t think about that until I was about 20 churches in. I felt like I blew it.
“Then I heard about this book, so I thought, ‘Thank goodness somebody did that,’” she said. “I can’t wait to look through it all, and learn the history of each place, and see all the photos.”
“I think history is important,” Gannon said. “I like knowing where we’ve come from as a diocese, and then seeing the newer parishes, seeing the growth and the continued thriving of the diocese just makes me really happy.”