Saint Francis of Assisi Parish, Townsend
The Catholics of Townsend share a history of growth and struggle. Our parish is situated in East Tennessee’s Diocese of Knoxville, founded in 1988. Originally, the whole of Tennessee was one diocese, with our founding Bishop Richard Miles sent to Nashville in 1838 to lead a state-wide diocese with only a few hundred Catholics, no churches, no schools, no clergy except for himself, and only his saddle bags for a chancery! His ability to make success out of adversity became the hallmark of Tennessee Catholicism.
We also share Tennessee’s shaky history with Catholicism. When Father Theodore Baden (First priest ordained in the United States, who would later purchase the land on which the University of Notre Dame was built) delivered a sermon at the state house in the then-capital of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1808, he was warmly received. However, by mid-century, the infamously anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party took control of the state, to be followed in influence in later decades by the equally hostile Ku Klux Klan and similar groups. But the Church survives here, thanks to God, to courageous laymen, religious and clerics, and to the ever-present help of kind neighbors. Let us look now at the history of Catholic pastoral care in Townsend, a history with distinct eras.
The first era began in 1904 when Catholic brothers John and James Shea, both managers with Colonel Townsend’s Little River Lumber Co., sought to establish a Catholic school for the many Irish and Italian Catholics employed by the company. The next year, Knoxville native Father Emmanuel Callahan, the last American horseback missionary, whose adventures in the 33 counties under hi care were followed by Catholics across the United States through published accounts in Catholic periodicals, oversaw the establishment of this Catholic school on Townsend’s Happy Top Hill, and began saying Mass monthly in the John Shea home. The Catholic community thrived in Townsend until the lumber industry gave way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a few years later, with the resulting loss of Catholic laborers in the area. It is worth noting that the Catholic community of Townsend produced a future vocation to the priesthood during this first era: John and Harriet Shea’s son, Msgr. John Harold Shea, was born in Townsend on June 26th, 1904. Msgr. Shea’s younger brother, Francis, born in Knoxville soon thereafter, would become bishop of Evansville, Indiana.
The second era began in 1960, when Father John P. Baltz of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Alcoa, whose parish included both Townsend and Gatlinburg within its boundaries, asked the only Catholic in Townsend, Dorothy Thompson, to identify a building that could be used as a church during the annual tourist season for the growing number of Catholic tourists. An abandoned and much neglected Methodist church was found and rented for one dollar per year. It was given the name “Saint Francis of Assisi Mission” after the 13th century Italian deacon and mystic. Sacred vessels and vestments were sought from other dioceses, and Bishop William Adrian of Nashville personally crafted the original altar, later dismantled during renovations in the 1980’s. A Catholic hospital in Dayton, Ohio donated the tabernacle and altar cross, which have been preserved. Closer to home, Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville began taking up an annual collection for our Townsend mission. Just before the first Mass, scheduled for June 18th, 1961, the Ku Klux Klan planned to burn down the building, but Methodist minister Rev. Perry Tanksley preached a sermon against this intolerance, which saved the church. Notably, over fifty non-Catholics from Townsend attended the first Mass. A few years later, the Catholics of Townsend were able to purchase the church and land, thanks to a bequest from Mr. W. E. Shultz of Memphis.
The third era began in 1991 when two clerics, Father Joseph Julius (d. 2004), a retired priest of the diocese of Nashville, and Deacon Michael Nestor, a veteran of the Vietnam War and telephone company supervisor, came to the mission. Together, they were the first clergymen to reside in Townsend. Due to the small size of the mission and the limited number of priests in the diocese, it would be Deacon Nestor who would provide consistent pastoral care over the following years as priests came and went. Accomplished musician Father Samuel Sturm resided in Townsend as a parochial vicar of Our Lady of Fatima from 2004 to 2007. Former surgeon Father John O’Neill followed him for a few months in 2007-2008. Two non-resident priests, retired U.S. Army judge Father Patrick Resen, J.D., and former Anglican cleric Father William McNeely, also provided regular pastoral care in Townsend during this time. Finally, thanks especially to the efforts of Deacon Nestor and Our Lady of Fatima pastor Father Bede Aboh, Ph.D., Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville decided to elevate the mission to parish status in the spring of 2010, naming Father Aboh our first pastor. Father Aboh, a scholar and childhood survivor of the Biafran War, began the third round of renovations to the church, following the renovations of 1961 and 1983. In the summer of 2011, parishioners celebrated the 50th anniversary of the reestablishment of the mission, and in 2012 Bishop Stika named Father J. B. Shelton the first resident pastor of the new parish. Father Shelton is assigned the task of leading the community’s transition from its rich mission past into its future as a fully developed parish. Thus begins an exciting new era!