Knoxville welcomes 'timeless' new cathedral

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks twice about faith moving mountains.

In the Diocese of Knoxville, faith moved a hillside, but not in the sense of a biblical metaphor. Excavators actually moved 56,000 cubic yards of earth on diocesan property, leveling a hillside to create a building pad for the new Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

And how was faith behind that moving?

“We have a growing population of Catholics in our diocese,” said Jim Wogan, director of communications for the diocese that covers 36 counties in East Tennessee. “We outgrew our original Sacred Heart Cathedral.”

The new cathedral with the new name will be dedicated on March 3. Catholic and community leaders and many from the 1,500 parish families will attend. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, will participate in the Mass and rite of dedication. He was secretary to Pope St. John Paul II, who formed the diocese in 1988.

Growing to this moment

This is the culmination of years of planning and three years of constructing what Father David Boettner, vicar general and cathedral rector, called “beautiful, transcendent and timeless.”

It’s one of two major Southern cathedrals opening within a year to serve growing numbers of Catholics. The Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, which dedicated the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral last July, grew from 133,000 Catholics 20 years ago to nearly a quarter of a million.

At a time when many dioceses are closing or consolidating parishes, the Diocese of Knoxville has more than doubled its population — from 30,000 Catholics to 70,000 — since it was created.

Four mission parishes accommodated that growth. One has a church, and three purchased property with plans to build in the future. Two of those parishes currently worship in storefronts and the third uses the basement of the priest’s house. A parish for the Vietnamese population is in the works too.

Sacred Heart Cathedral, a parish church built in 1956, was designated as the mother church for the diocese. No additions were made as attendance outgrew the 580 seats. The four weekend Masses were packed, and the Spanish-speaking Mass had standing room only with people lined out the door.

The Catholic population — about 3 percent of the total population — in East Tennessee increased for several reasons. According to Wogan, people come to the area to work in technology, factories and agriculture.

“There’s also a large retirement population here that’s attracted to the mountains, lakes, outdoor activities and four seasons that aren’t harsh,” he said.

Conversions are up, too.

“Three years ago, we were number 10 in the nation in terms of conversions through the RCIA process,” Bishop Richard F. Stika said. “The economy is strong, and people move here, and there are a lot of unchurched people. I think there are conversions from what we do in evangelization.”

For instance, he added, the diocese’s mobile health clinic that reaches underserved areas is living intentional discipleship and the sacramental nature of the Church, reaching people who might have never before met Catholics.

‘In the presence of God’

Diocesan leaders in 2013 formed a committee to raise $28 million to build a cathedral adjacent to the original church, which will be repurposed.

It has 28,000 square feet, seats up to 1,200 and includes 300,000 Roman style bricks from Ohio, 20,000 pieces of limestone from Indiana, granite steps from North Carolina and marble from Italy. There are 10,000 feet of mechanical piping, 47,920 linear feet of electrical conduit, 35,000 pounds of sheet metal and 40 miles of wood blocking and trim.

Those are the numbers. The cathedral itself is a work of art.

“There is nothing in this building that is not intentional, and the details really matter,” Father Boettner said. “When you walk in, the goal was that the beauty really should take our breath away. When you walk into sacred space you should say, without blasphemy, ‘My God’ and you should say that honestly and prayerfully because you really feel like you are in the presence of God. This is what we have been trying to accomplish and I think everybody really has worked hard at bringing that into reality.”

The dome of Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral. Courtesy photo

The diocese hired McCrery Architects of Washington, D.C. and BarberMcMurray Architects of Knoxville. The bishop, rector and committee wanted something timeless that wouldn’t pinpoint when it was built.

“True to the tradition of the Church, the cathedral is built in the cruciform-style of architecture and the tabernacle — which came from a church in Holland that was destroyed 100 years ago — is in the back,” Bishop Stika said. “When you enter the building, you enter in a spiritual sense. Everything causes your mind to go to that which is God-centered.”

The interior is rich with stone pillars, marble columns and floor tile. There’s carved wood, sculptured column capitals, and the corpus from the old cathedral hangs on a new cross.

“There are five statues from the old cathedral when you walk in,” Bishop Stika said. “There’s St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John Vianney, St. Mother Teresa and St. Faustina, because I have a strong relation to the Divine Mercy — ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’ The Divine Mercy reminds us that it comes from the heart of Jesus.”

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

There are statues and shrines to Pope St. John XXIII, Pope St. John Paul II, Mary, Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The interior of the magnificent dome, inspired by the Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiorie in Florence, Italy, is painted with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mary and the apostles. The base is encircled with well-known saints like Patrick and Francis, and less familiar ones including Josephine Bakhita of Sudan and Vietnamese St. Andrew Dung-Lac.

The dedication will be attended by Cardinal Justin Rigali, former archbishop of St. Louis and Philadelphia, who also worked in Rome for many years; and Cardinal William Levada, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Archbishop of Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.