From its humble beginnings as a tiny church
built by the Irish immigrant railroad laborers, the Catholic
Church in Greeneville has grown into a community of about three
hundred fifty families. The faith of the Irish was strong, and
so it is with the faith of our people today.
We are a diverse group, coming from different parts of the
country, from different countries of the world, from sometimes
vastly different social and economic levels. Some of us are
people who have come here as employees and managers of the local
industries, moving with the company every so often. Some of us
are migrants who have come here looking for work and
opportunity, not unlike the Irish who built the first building
in the 18th century. Some of us are retirees who were looking
for a home in the heart of the country and found the perfect
place in the hills of Greene County. Some of us married a spouse
who was a native of Greene County and have made this the place
where we put down roots and lived our lives with family and
friends. We are all different, and we are all here because we
share and treasure that faith which transcends all differences.
The church prospers in Greeneville, but it was not always so.
When the Irish rail workers settled here, there was no Catholic
parish community. Many of the early Catholics, without a church
of their own faith, had drifted into the fellowship in the other
Christian churches. The Irish, far from their home parishes,
longed for a church where they could gather together and worship
the Lord. They worked hard, sacrificed and raised money to build
a church. Among those who contributed was the Doyle family,
Judge Patterson and President Andrew Johnson. (President
Johnson's daughter, Mary Johnson Stover had been received into
the Catholic Church while attending a Convent School in
On October 16, 1870, the dream of a
Catholic church in Greeneville became a reality. St. Patrick's
Church, nestled in a grove of magnificent oaks on College
Street, was at last dedicated. On that day the railroad granted
half-fare rates so that Catholics of East Tennessee could attend
the dedication. President Andrew Johnson, who had donated $500
toward the construction, was himself seated on the front row.
Priests were scarce in East Tennessee, and the Greeneville
church was served by the staff of Immaculate Conception Church
in Knoxville. In time, a young priest, Fr. Emmanuel Callahan, a
native of Knoxville, became the priest who cared for all the
Catholics of these rural counties. A great missionary, Fr.
Callahan traveled on horseback. At times he had to live like a
native American, sleeping in hollow trees and enduring the
poverty and suffering of a pioneer. He founded a little paper,
which he called The Faith of Catholics. It was published in the
home Frawley home in Newport and mailed to about fifteen hundred
readers. It had editorials, reprints, and poems, as well as
articles by Fr. Callahan about his work in the East Tennessee
Eulalia Rankin, who was the oldest member of our parish, at her
death in the mid-1990's, said that Fr. Callahan was a great
person. She said that Fr. Callahan was just like a relative and
he spent a lot of time with the Rankin family in Ottway. Her
father was a medical doctor, who, even though he was not a
Catholic, enjoyed Fr. Callahan immensely. Fr. Callahan rode a
horse named "Rebel" and made the Rankin farm his base for a
month at a time. He later died as the result of an infection
from tick bite received while sleeping outdoors on a mission
In 1916 Bishop Byrne placed the Johnson City parish and the
thirteen surrounding counties in the care of the Dominicans,
with Fr, S.R. Brockbank as the pastor. St. Patrick's in
Greeneville became a Dominican mission.
After the railroads were completed in this area, many of the
Irish moved away, some to Knoxville, and others continued to
work in railroad construction. Many looked for areas to live
where there were more Catholics and the opportunity for a
regular parish life in which to raise their families. By 1934,
there were only about fifteen active families in the Greeneville
area; they included Dr. and Mrs. Tom Boyd, Mr. and Mrs. Harry
Beekner and son Julian Alter, plus the Rankin and Weems
In the winter of 1934, it was too
cold to celebrate Mass in the old church. Mr. Beekner offered
the use of the Capitol Theater. In 1950 the old church building
was torn down and Mass was celebrated regularly in the Capitol
Theater until 1955. That year a new church was built and named
Notre Dame. Notre Dame was established as a new and independent
parish. Fr. Albert Siener was the first pastor and Notre Dame
Church was the center for mission activities in the surrounding
8 counties, called the Greeneville Missions. At that time the
parish bordered on Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina.
As industry moved into the area, so did more Catholics. By 1960
the number of Catholics had increased to about 60 families. Fr.
Bernard Niedergeses, a native of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, became
the pastor and worked here for ten years. Fr. Niedergeses lived
in the two rooms which now are the chapel and the altar servers
room. He was the builder of two area churches: St. Patrick's in
Morristown and St. Henry's in Rogersville. He also built the new
rectory here in Greeneville. During his time here he saw a great
increase of the numbers of Catholic families in East Tennessee.
Orignial Marble Altar and Crucifix with Railing
St. Patrick's in Morristown became an
independent parish with its own pastor around 1965.
In 1974, Fr. William Casey and Julian Alter found and installed
a bell in the tower. Parishioners had searched high and low for
a bell and there were many times when they had turned to St.
Jude, whose statue is in the bell tower, for help. After
nineteen years their prayers were answered when a pitted and
rusty steel cast bell was found in an antique store in
Greeneville. It was about one hundred years old and had been
cast at Ross Meehan Foundries in Chattanooga.
In 1976 the parish hall was added to the church to give more
room for religious education classes, parish social events,
youth ministry activities and for overflow seating space for
To the joyful ringing of the bell was added the
joyful music of a singing church. Fr. Wiatt Andrew Funk became
pastor in June, 1976. A musician, Fr. Funk composed much of the
ordinary music we use, including a setting for the Gloria and
the Our Father.
For many years St Henry's, Rogersville, was a
Mission of Notre Dame. In July of 1981, St. Henry's became a
parish with its own pastor.
Much, much more could be said. Many priests
and many families have given the gift of their faith for the
greater glory of God. The church has a long history in
Greeneville, but as we join hands and sing the Lord's Prayer,
our spirits soar, and we know that this is just the beginning.