Notre Dame Parish History

Our Beginnings

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 Georgetown, Maryland.)

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 mountains.

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 trip.

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 families.

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 Mass.

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.