In January 2021, Father Don set out to establish a Glenmary mission in Smith County, Tenn., about an hour east of Nashville. There never has been a Catholic church in the county. Here is a note from him on his progress.
Things have gotten a little hectic during the summer months here in Smith County. I had expected a kind of long, drawn out process getting this mission off the ground, but the Holy Spirit accelerated my expectations, and the rest is history.
The surface of life is always happening, but the depth of life happens only when we remember. I think holy remembering is crucial to my spirituality. It helps me to identify the finger of God and actions of the Holy Spirit in my anything-but-routine ministry. Holy remembering validates my ministry; it allows me to discern the results of being a recipient of prayer. In all honesty, I have never felt so prayed for (and with) in all my life.
The early days
I knew early on that Smith County was established in 1799 and I knew there was never a public Mass celebrated here in all that time. I also knew that this was not going to be an easy task. I entered Smith County in mid-January as a stranger in a strange land.
I am assigned here alone. I knew nobody and I knew nothing about my new surroundings. Where do you begin? What do you do? How do you do it? I once bought a movie poster that is now framed in my new kitchen. The movie, “When in Doubt, Do Something,” is a tribute to the life and witness of Harry Chapin. This was Harry’s mantra. Every morning over coffee I look at this poster. It is what I need to see and implement. Here in Smith County, the temptations for me to do nothing are real and powerful, especially while living alone. For the times I let temptation win the day, Lord forgive me.
I moved into my home here in Brush Creek, Tenn., in mid-January, during dark and depressing weather, at a time the pandemic was awful statewide. There was not a stick of furniture here except for a stove and refrigerator. I slept on an air mattress for the first eight nights. I admit pondering to myself, What am I doing here?
I furnished my home with donations and used furniture from a thrift store. I found such great deals, and once I got my treasures home I vacuumed them and sprayed them with fabric sanitizer. The only exception to this were the new beds I bought from Big Lots. It was such fun making this house my own!
I identified early on that, with the pandemic, I needed an atypical approach to starting this mission. I did less personal visitations and more public speaking. I started with neighboring counties that had a Catholic church. I spoke at churches in Lebanon, Lafayette and Cookeville. I collected names of folks who live in Smith County so I could share my dream to start a Catholic Church with them.
I found that through networking, folks knew other people who stopped going to a Catholic church because of the distance and a host of other reasons. As the list grew, I drafted a letter introducing myself and invited them to dream big dreams with me, to help us discern the level of interest of starting a Catholic church in Smith County. My letter articulated the benefits of having a Catholic church in Smith County to serve us now and for generations to come.
The Holy Spirit
I rented the Smith County Chamber of Commerce for our first meeting on May 27. It was wonderful and divine providence was apparent! Thirty-two folks participated, many of whom did not know each other. Of course, I did not know them either. The evening started with what is commonly referred to now as the Smith County Prayer, a unique and powerful prayer we wrote for our gatherings.
The prayer follows this article, but here are two excerpts that capture its spirit: “You have gathered us at this moment to be a sign of your saving love and presence in Smith County;” and “Help us to embrace this new beginning in our journey as a Catholic community of faith.” The prayer asks for help deepening a joyful Catholic faith, for help respecting people of other faiths, and a sense of trust in God’s providence.
The agenda of our meeting was to discern the level of interest (passion) for our endeavor. Those gathered spoke with conviction and articulated the gifts they would bring to the table to help any mission. I will savor memories of this meeting for years to come.
For example, we had one woman who wept tears of joy over the mere possibility of the Catholic Church coming to Smith County. At one point in the agenda, folks articulated how they may help. We had contractors, painters, teachers, musicians, choir members and more.
We had numerous unsolicited comments from folks who said they never felt the presence of the Holy Spirit so alive and so active in their lives as they did that night. If the church was not officially given birth to this night, at least it was a prerequisite to any official beginnings! It was clear to me that the gathered folks were recipients of the fire of the Spirit and were eager to get started.
Birth of the local Church
As the pandemic slowly improved last summer, I introduced myself to local pastors and tried to meet civic leaders. Lots remains to be done in this arena. I sensed a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment and tried to break down barriers of false stereotypes. We owe a debt of gratitude to the pastor of the Methodist Church, who allowed us to use their church for our meetings and Holy Mass.
A second organizational meeting followed by Mass took place June 24, the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. It was here, with the presence of the Vicar General and the Chief Financial Officer of the Diocese of Nashville, that our eucharistic community was born.
We heard testimonials in support of our initiative that were so emotional, it produced tears of joy. It was at this gathering that the historic first public Mass was celebrated in Smith County. Here we unanimously agreed to begin regularly scheduled weekend Mass every Saturday evening at 5 p.m., at the Methodist Church.
The challenge ahead
We began our regularly scheduled weekend Mass July 3. Folks are still basking in the reality of a dream that came true in record time! The Methodist Church continues to offer hospitality. We are privileged to participate in the miracle of the Eucharist on a weekly basis.
Still, we know that challenges abound: There are many people of Hispanic origin in this county. We need to invite our Hispanic brothers and sisters to full participation at the Lord’s Supper. We need to match the giftedness of our new community with the many ministerial and administrative needs. We need to come to know one another on a social basis.
We also need to find our own venue so we can offer educational opportunities and weekday Mass to our young community. We also need to somehow finance whatever venue we find.
Of course, other needs have yet to be discovered. Still, the afterglow of these early gatherings and being surrounded by brave disciples who are willing to confront all challenges—to be part of this history—is comforting. We thank God as we embark on a future that is bright with God’s promise and potential.
Smith County Prayer
Good and Gracious God, we thank you for loving us and blessing us, and for gifting us with life.
In your infinite wisdom, you have gathered us at this moment in time to be a sign of your saving love and presence in Smith County. Though small and humble our beginnings, you make us worthy of this calling.
Help us to embrace this new beginning in our journey as a Catholic community of faith. May we be known as people of hospitality, welcoming all who come to us. While we deepen our own Catholic faith, help us to understand and respect people of other faiths in our county.
We do not know what the future holds, but we know that we are held in the palm of your hand. May we work together and draw strength from one another. As we commit ourselves to the work of building your kingdom, keep us mindful of your goodness, and let us share your joy in all we do.
We make this prayer in the name of Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen!
—Father Don Tranel