For 100 years, St. Ann Church at 51st Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue has been a hub of Catholic life and a beacon for the faith in West Nashville.
“We’re a stable and connected part of the community,” said St. Ann’s pastor, Father Michael Fye. “We have open doors to anyone who wants what we have to offer, which is the Catholic faith and the teachings of Jesus.”
The parish will celebrate the centennial jubilee of its founding with the blessing and dedication of a new grotto featuring a statue of St. Ann and her daughter the Blessed Virgin Mary, on Monday, July 26, and a free parish festival on the church grounds, Saturday, July 31.
“I think celebrating the centennial is an appropriate way to give thanks to God for what he has been doing for 100 years,” Father Fye said.
The parish began as St. Peter’s Mission in 1917, a mission of the Church of the Assumption in North Nashville. Father Peter Pfeiffer, a Franciscan priest serving at Assumption, agreed to drive out to what was then the outskirts of the city once a month to celebrate Mass in a room above the Close and March Hardware Store at 49th Avenue North and Charlotte.
The first Mass was celebrated in October 1917 with 115 Catholics present.
The community quickly grew as more Catholics, many of them working for the nearby Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Rail Line, moved into the area. Bishop Thomas Byrne established the new parish, named after St. Ann, in 1921.
Father Henry Japes, a former pastor of Assumption, gave a bequest that was combined with money raised by the community to purchase the former Byrd Douglas plantation house, then known as the Thomasson House, at the corner of 51st Avenue and Charlotte. The home, with a large front lawn, was remodeled to be used as a church on the first floor and a school on the second.
The school, which was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy from its founding in 1921 until 1992, is the oldest diocesan school in the City of Nashville.
A new church building was built in 1939 on the lawn in front of the original church. That church building was replaced with a new structure – the current church – in 1960, while Father Edgar Kelly was pastor. The church underwent a major renovation in 1993 and the Parish Life Center was built in 1998, during the 25-year tenure of Father Philip Breen, the longest serving pastor in the parish’s history.
The current rectory and school were built in 1947 when Msgr. Edward Dolan was pastor. The Neidert Hall gymnasium was built in 1965 during Father Kelly’s tenure.
‘Part of our life’
Emmett Forte, 88, has lived nearly his entire life in the shadow of St. Ann Church. “I consider myself the oldest continuous member of St. Ann parish,” he said. “Even when I was in the service it was still my parish. Even when I was in school (at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville) it was my parish. I came home most weekends.”
Forte was born in 1933, the fourth of five children of Henry and Anna Louise Seibert Forte. His father’s family were among those that settled in the Paradise Ridge area of Joelton and helped establish St. Lawrence Church. His mother grew up in North Nashville in Assumption Parish.
Her father bought property on both sides of Park Avenue between 52nd Avenue and 53rd, Forte said. His uncle, George Seibert, who was a carpenter, began building houses on that block, and the Forte family moved into the house at 5211 Park Ave., where Forte was born.
“I was born a block from the church,” Forte said. “When you live that close to the church, church was just part of life. It wasn’t something you just went to on Sunday. … It was just part of our life.”
His mother served as the parish organist for 35 years, and Forte graduated from St. Ann School, as have his four children and several of his grandchildren. His great-grandson, also named Emmett, is currently a student at St. Ann. Two of his daughters, Judy Graham and Karen Herrmann, are teachers at the school.
Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, St. Ann parishioners living in the neighborhood around the church formed a tight community, Forte said.
“Pop Neidert (the namesake of the school gymnasium) ran the Gulf Service Station at Richland Creek on Charlotte,” Forte said. “I worked at that service station all during high school.”
The neighborhood, unlike its thoroughly urban feel today, still had a country feel to it then. “There was nothing from the creek to White Bridge Road. It was farmland,” Forte said. “We always played football in the cow pasture right behind Neidert’s service station,” which was located where the Metro Nashville Police Department’s West Precinct now sits.
After graduating from Father Ryan High School, Forte served in the U.S. Air Force.
“When I got out of the Air force, I told myself there’s no way you’re even going to look at a girl until you get through college,” Forte said. “That didn’t happen.”
He met Peggy Curley, who grew up in the Cathedral of the Incarnation parish, when she and a friend started a senior CYO group at St. Ann. She and Emmett married in 1957 and moved into St. Ann parish. Their daughter Barbara Hember was the first child baptized in the current church.
Mrs. Forte later served as the parish secretary for nearly 25 years.
‘A nice bubble’
The Fortes raised their children to also be closely attached to the parish.
“It was part of my life from the very beginning,” said Herrmann, who graduated from St. Ann School in 1977 and later from St. Bernard Academy. “Everything we did as a family was connected to the school and the church. … It was home really, just part of who we were.”
As in her father’s youth, the St. Ann community was tight-knit when she was growing up, Herrman said.
“I used to think everybody in the world was Catholic,” she said. “It was a bubble, but it was a nice bubble.”
She returned to St. Ann as a teacher and has been there for nearly 27 years. Herrmann sent her three sons to St. Ann and her grandson is a student there now. “I wanted my kids to be a big fish in a small pond,” Herrmann said. “I always felt it was a good launching place.”
‘Open and welcoming’
St. Ann has grown in recent years, mirroring the growth of the entire city and the changes in the neighborhoods around the church.
“Roughly speaking, we had about 450 active families two years ago and now we have 600 plus,” Father Fye said.
The school’s growth has matched the parish’s. When Anna Rumfola was named principal in 2018, the school had 117 students. This year it’s enrollment will be 183, she said.
“Our school has more students in it than it’s had in probably more than a decade or more,” Father Fye said. “Which is incredible when you consider national and even local trends.”
The school has made a concerted effort to raise its awareness among young families looking for school options, he said. “A lot of people didn’t even know we were here before.”
The demographics of the parish are reflecting the larger trends in the diocese, Father Fye said. St. Ann has large Hispanic and Vietnamese communities, and the parish is fairly evenly split among new parishioners and those who have been there for years, he added.
“The community is very open and welcoming,” Father Fye said. “We’re making explicit efforts to live the faith in a vibrant and confident way.”
“We put love above all things. Love, mutual respect and understanding and sacrifice is what makes a community real,” he added. “A community is united around someone or something. That’s what makes them a community. Whether they are life-long parishioners or new to the parish, if they’re united in the love for Jesus, that’s the foundation for which you can build a culture that the community shares.”
St. Ann Church is hosting several events as part of a year-long celebration of its Centennial Jubilee — “Radiating Christ for 100 Years.”
This spring the parish hosted a women’s retreat and a concert and began a project to plant 100 trees in the city over the next year.
On Monday, July 26, the parish will honor St. Joachim and St. Ann, the parents of the Blessed Virgin, with a Mass at 5 p.m. celebrated by Bishop J. Mark Spalding. Following the Mass, a new grotto, featuring a statue of St. Ann and Mary, will be blessed and dedicated.
The parish will welcome its families and the community to a free parish festival on the church grounds, Saturday, July 31. The event will run from noon until 5 p.m. for all ages, with a separate event for those 21 and older beginning at 6:30 p.m. The bishop will be joined by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, diocesan Superintendent of Schools Dr. Rebecca Hammel, Metro Councilwoman Kathleen Murphy and others for a special salute and video presentation at 2:30 p.m.
Sponsors of the Centennial Celebration include Choate Construction, Maxwell Roofing and Sheet Metal, Bradley Health Services, The Forte Family, The Hooper Family, Tara and David McGuire, Ascension Saint Thomas, Southern Made, WMV Production, Cumberland Creative, the Diocese of Nashville, Father Ryan High School, Pope John Paul II Preparatory School, St. Cecilia Academy, tpmbLAW, the Marchetti Family, Burgundy Group, the Pitt and Reed Families, Donna and John Braniff, and others.
In August, the church and school will celebrate the installation of a historical marker recognizing their history in the neighborhood. It will be one of several activities the school will sponsor to celebrate the Centennial Jubilee through the year.
For more information about the Centennial Celebration, visit saintannparish.com.
Pastors of St. Ann
Here is a list of the pastors at St. Ann Church, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding this year.
- Father Joseph E. Leppert
- Father George L. Donovan
- Father William Freihammer
- Father William Neidert
- Father Charles N. Quest
- Father William K. Graw
- Msgr. Edward Dolan
- Father Edgar M. Kelly
- Father Coleman M. Ballinger.
- Father Joseph E. Wesley
- Father Allan J. Cunningham
- Father John L. Kirk
- Father Philip M. Breen
- Father Joseph P. Edwige Carré
- Father Michael C. Fye