The roots of Catholicism run deeper in East Tennessee than many imagine.
The first Europeans to see East Tennessee were Catholic Spaniards of Hernando de Soto’s expedition in 1540. It is known that in June 1540 de Soto’s party camped near Lookout Mountain and that Mass was celebrated at that encampment.
By the start of the 19th century, many Catholics had settled along the Ohio River, and in 1808 a diocese was established at Bardstown, Ky., that covered an immense area from present-day Chicago to the southern border of Tennessee.
In 1837 the Vatican took note of the physical impossibility of having a single bishop to service such a huge area as the Diocese of Bardstown and created three new dioceses in Dubuque, Iowa; Natchez, Miss.; and Nashville.
Knoxville’s first church, Immaculate Conception, was constructed in 1852, as was Chattanooga’s first church, Sts. Peter and Paul.
A landmark in the history of the Church in East Tennessee came in 1899 when Bishop Thomas S. Byrne assigned Father Emmanuel F. Callahan to be an associate pastor at Immaculate Conception in Knoxville with a secondary charge to oversee missions in the area.
In 1900 Father Callahan was transferred full time to Johnson City, from whence he would be the missionary priest to bring the Church to believers and nonbelievers alike in 34 of the current 36 counties of the Diocese of Knoxville. He established several missions in East Tennessee.
Several new parishes were erected in the era, including Our Lady of Lourdes in South Pittsburg in 1899, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in LaFollette in 1905, St. Mary in Johnson City in 1906, Blessed Sacrament in Harriman in 1907, Church of the Resurrection (later known as St. Thérèse of Lisieux) in Cleveland in 1914, and St. Elizabeth in Elizabethton in 1916.
From 1935 to 1988 the Catholic population in East Tennessee grew by leaps and bounds.
From 1908 through 1958 there were two parishes in Knoxville. By the time the Diocese of Knoxville was established in 1988 there were five.
Statewide, in 1961 the Catholic population was approximately 77,000. By 1970 that number had grown to 120,000.
It was during Bishop Joseph A. Durick’s tenure, in 1970, that the Diocese of Memphis was formed in West Tennessee.
By the time the 1980s rolled around it was becoming clear that, even without Memphis, the Diocese of Nashville now encompassed some 70,000 Catholics, and the resulting administrative headaches and the physical difficulties of time and distance were reaching the point where something needed to be done.
A full-scale proposal for the new Diocese of Knoxville was submitted to the Vatican in November 1987. On May 27, 1988, His Holiness, John Paul II, announced the formal establishment of the Diocese of Knoxville under the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Three bishops have served the Diocese of Knoxville.
The Most Rev. Anthony J. O’Connell was installed as the first bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville on Sept. 8, 1988.
The Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz was installed as the second bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville on Oct. 26, 1999.
Ths Most Rev. Richard F. Stika was installed as the third and current bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville on March 19, 2009.
The Diocese of Knoxville currently has 50 parish churches and one mission parish.
The Diocese of Knoxville’s rapid growth was recently cited in a study by Georgetown University which ranked Knoxville as the 10th highest diocese in the nation for Catholic Conversions. The Diocese of Knoxville currently has approximately 69,000 Catholics– about twice as many as when it was created in 1988. The Catholic population represents about 2.8% of the total population of the area.
Growth is evident in the recent elevation of three mission churches to full parish status. St. Teresa of Kolkata in Maynardville, Tenn., through the work of the Glenmary Home Missioners, was established in 2011 and in September 2014 was elevated to a full parish by Bishop Richard F. Stika. Two months later The Church of the Divine Mercy in Knoxville, a church that serves the Vietnamese community, became a full parish. In September of 2018, St. Michael the Archangel in Erwin, Tenn., also a mission of the Glenmary Home Missioners, was elevated to a full parish.
In September 2014, the Diocese of Knoxville and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus announced plans for a new cathedral to be built on the site of the current church at 711 Northshore Drive in the Bearden neighborhood of Knoxville. With fundraising through the Home Campaign, groundbreaking for the new cathedral began on April 19, 2015.
Bishop Richard F. Stika, the third Bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, dedicated the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on March 3, 2018.
(Portions of this article were taken from the book, The History of the Diocese of Knoxville published by Editions du Signe with text provided by Dan McWilliams of the East Tennessee Catholic newspaper. Copies are available for purchase at the Paraclete bookstore in Knoxville, Tenn.)