Christmas was different this year in Rutledge, Tenn. Construction of a new building for St. John Paul II church was completed earlier this year, and the community moved in for worship, faith education, and to provide many social services for Grainger County. The faux-steeple on the old storefront Catholic church out on Rutledge Pike, next to the laundromat, is gone and, at last glance, up for rent.
Glenmary Father Neil Pezzulo, pastor of this mission parish, talks about leading worship in the new space. “Every time I celebrated Mass at the other place, I always had the idea, this is temporary,” says Father Neil. His community had outgrown its tiny storefront space.
Father Neil lives in the next county, Union County, near St. Teresa of Kolkata mission, home of a new, bigger church that was dedicated a few years ago. But he is pastor to both communities. Speaking of St. John Paul II’s new space, he says, with conviction: “This is home. This is permanent. This is where we belong.”
There is a lot to like in the new building. For starters, it’s a beautiful setting, in the countryside a little out of this tiny town (1,300 people), nestled between gentle hills. The building itself is simple by any standard—built primarily with volunteer labor, led by Glenmary Brother Joe Steen.
What do people appreciate the most? “The seats!” says Father Neil. “They’re not crowded,” he says of the new chairs. “It’s clean,” he adds, which tells you something about the crowded space they left.
When you walk in, you know it’s a church, a Catholic church. There, in the front, is the tabernacle, home for the reserved Blessed Sacrament. There is a spacious, well decorated sanctuary, and Stations of the Cross. Maybe one day there will be stained glass; for now simple windows do the job illuminating a beautiful space.
Out back is a large, covered patio for social gathering; down the hall are a few offices for multiple uses, including space for Father Neil and for pastoral associate Clarisa Chavarría.
“This is a much better space to host St. Mary’s traveling medical clinic, which visits once per month,” notes Father Neil. That clinic, moving from rural parish to parish, brings medical care for those who otherwise wouldn’t receive it. “Now we have a special high-voltage electrical outlet for them, so they don’t need to use generators and extension cords. Just the design of the building allows for people to come and sit, and a place for private consultations.” Makeshift partitions was the best they could do in the old storefront.
This is not a big parish, maybe 30-35 people for Sunday Mass, but that will grow with a permanent space. “Clarisa is running a Sunday afternoon family RCIA catechetical program. There were about 35 there last week. Before, in the old space, it was more hit-and-miss,” says Father Neil.
At Christmas, Masses were celebrated in English and Spanish—there are a lot of Catholic immigrants here. And of course there is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Posadas during Advent. Along the way, he says, “we’re still doing some work on the patio, but we got our tile floor installed.” It’s a home-in-progress.