Upland Chronicles: St. Mary’s was first Catholic Church in Sevier County

Jul. 20, 2013 @ 11:01 PM

Although Sevier County has always been overwhelming Protestant, the Catholic parish formed in Gatlinburg in the 1930s has managed to co-exist in harmony with other denominations.

A small but determined congregation made up of transplants struggled for almost two decades before they were able to build a permanent worship space they could call their own.

After the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, families began moving to Gatlinburg from other parts of the country. Not all of the newcomers were accustomed to attending church services in the denominations represented in Gatlinburg at that time.

While there were some who simply adjusted to attending one of the existing churches, there were others who wanted to worship in a church of their chosen faith. For those who were practicing Roman Catholics, the nearest Catholic Church was Immaculate Conception in downtown Knoxville.

On Easter Sunday, April 21, 1935, a small group of devout Catholics managed to obtain a priest to hold a Mass in a private home in Gatlinburg. Appreciating the convenience of attending church close to home, the group began requesting a priest from the Diocese.

Due to the small population in the region, all of East Tennessee was under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Nashville at the time. As a matter of fact, the Diocese of Knoxville was not established until 1988. Given the handful of potential parishioners, the Bishop was reluctant to establish a parish in Gatlinburg.

However the little band of Catholics was persistent. Their relentless appeal included the fact that a large number of Catholic tourists would be seeking a place to worship while visiting the area.

Three years later the bishop agreed to send a part-time priest to Gatlinburg a suitable place to hold Mass could be found, despite the fact that there were only a dozen families who would be full-time worshipers.

Dr. and Mrs. John Conroy of Knoxville came to the rescue by donating a rustic log cabin located on the north end of town to severe as a house of worship. There was only one drawback; the cabin sat atop a steep hillside. The only way to get to the cabin was to hike single-file up the 64 steep steps that separated it from the parkway.

The cabin was named St. Mary’s Chapel in honor of the Blessed Mother of Jesus. The steps served as a penitential pilgrimage to the handful of local parishioners and the visitors who gathered there.

With each passing year more visitors came to Gatlinburg. Some Sundays as many as 200 Catholics would huff and puff their way up to the log cabin chapel on the hill; although the seating capacity was only 40.

15 years after that first Easter Sunday Mass in 1935, the chapel finally achieved mission status in 1950 as a mission of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa, under the guidance of its pastor, Father Paul W. Clunan.

While the year-round congregation grew slowly, the number of tourists attending Mass while visiting the Smokies continued to grow steadily. With little more than determination and faith, the optimistic locals soon decided to purchase property on Airport Road (today called Historic Nature Trail) on which to build a new church of adequate size to accommodate the ever-growing seasonal attendance.

The Gothic-design stone church was dedicated on Nov. 26, 1953. St. Mary’s remained a mission until 1969 when it became a canonically established parish covering all of Sevier County. In the late 1970s a new wing provided classrooms, a parish hall and 125 additional seats.

Barbara Steele Weeks recalled, “I remember as a small child climbing the stairs up the side of the mountain at the north end of town. The church was on the right side going out, just past the bridge that goes into Smoky Heights on left…such a long time ago.

“To the best of my knowledge, Bud Maples and I were the first to be married in the new church on November 24, 1954… at any rate, one of the first. My precious mother Katie Reilly Steele was the oldest parishioner until her death in June 2006. Since I am the oldest living child, I feel I am the oldest (although not in age) since I was 3 when we moved to Gatlinburg in 1940, the year President Roosevelt dedicated the national park.”

St Mary’s Parish has grown from the 12 families in 1938 to over 100 families today and has been instrumental in the establishment of two additional parishes within Sevier County; Holy Family in Seymour and Holy Cross in Pigeon Forge.

Due to the faith and determination of a handful of faithful Catholics almost eight decades ago, St Mary’s Catholic Church has served the community living up to the final paragraph of its mission statement: “St Mary’s Church welcomes all who search for Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and eternal life.”

— Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.