Oh my gosh, look what we’ve done,” is what Michael Manor thinks when he walks inside Saint Peter the Apostle Catholic Church. There are pews installed. There are lights on. There are people inside. Two years ago, there were more than 100 churches in Smith County, Tennessee, and not one of them was Catholic, Michael says. That statement is no longer true.
Saint Peter the Apostle sits in downtown Carthage, the county seat, right off a main road close to the bank of the Cumberland River.
In two and a half short years, from January 2021 when Father Don Tranel arrived in Smith County to present day, the Catholic community in Carthage has celebrated their first weekend Mass, bought and renovated a permanent church location, and most recently had the church officially dedicated.
On the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul—June 29, 2023—Bishop J. Mark Spalding celebrated a special Mass at Saint Peter the Apostle with Father John Hammond, vicar general of the diocese, and Father Don. As the assembly prayed and watched, the bishop anointed and blessed the altar and building, and signed a decree establishing Saint Peter the Apostle as an official parish of the Diocese of Nashville.
During the first year, when the community was still celebrating Mass in the Carthage United Methodist Church, Michael and fellow parishioner Chris Woodard would drive all over Carthage looking for properties on sale.
One day, Woodard drove past a Protestant church and thought, “This would be the perfect place for a Catholic church.” The next week, that Protestant church property was for sale. The two buildings on the four-acre property now serve as the Catholic church and a parish hall, with classroom space in the basement of the parish hall.
Chris was a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Hendersonville since 1972. She was making the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive, with no traffic, to church on Sundays. In May 2021, Father Don called a meeting at the chamber of commerce to gauge community interest in a Catholic church. “We were expecting maybe four or six, and there were 32 people there,” says Father Don.
Woodard was one of them. “It was, to me, eye-opening,” she says. She was surprised at the number of people in town she did not even know were Catholic. “And that we had hope that we were going to have a church here.”
A parish is born
The church grew quickly after that initial meeting.
A parishioner had said to Father Don, “Why don’t we start now?” and so the first Sunday Mass in Smith County was celebrated a month later, on June 24, 2021.
Father Don proposed the name Saint Peter the Apostle because of the familiarity and recognition that the saint has among the general population. The presence of a Catholic church has made a significant difference not only to the Catholics in the area, but also to non-Catholics alike. “In my opinion, it answered a need in Smith County,” says Father Don.
The sentiment toward Catholics was not always friendly, Michael says, but now people are coming up to him to ask what the Mass times are. And this year, Father Don was one of the speakers at the town’s annual National Day of Prayer celebration.
When Mass was first being celebrated, the church averaged 40 people a weekend. Today, that number has more than doubled to between 80 and 100 people each weekend. It seems like there is someone new at Mass each week, Michael says.
Chris considers it part of her ministry to greet all those who enter. “You mean something,” and “We’re so happy you’re here” is what she hopes each person understands when they celebrate Eucharist with them.
With the permanent church building in place, ministries are beginning to grow. The third year of RCIA—the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults—is underway. The Women’s Club is already collecting recipes for a cookbook fundraiser, and a neighboring Knights of Columbus council has hosted a meeting to determine interest in beginning a council.
Parishioners are also taking turns cleaning the church each week. “So many people want to participate,” Chris says.
“We just have to do our part,” says Michael. The process of forming a church has not always been easy, he adds, but “what a blessing it is to see something start just from a meeting and how it grew to this church.”
“Again, thank you Glenmary for believing in us as a community,” says Chris. She now enjoys a 15-minute commute to church where she can worship with her neighbors. “You don’t know what you have done. You have given us hope and a church and faith. It just feels like home.”
This story first appeared in the Autumn 2023 publication of the Glenmary Challenge.