Catholics living in the metro Nashville area have no problem finding a church nearby. But in some of the rural areas of the diocese’s 38 counties in Middle Tennessee, there is no Catholic church at all and in others the parishes are too small to accommodate a growing community.
While any parish may have a difficult time funding necessary capital projects, for small parishes the job of raising large amounts of money can be so daunting that vital expensive repairs, renovations, or expansions can be too massive to undertake, and that means parishioners may have to congregate in schools or travel a long distance for Mass.
The Bishop Miles Society, formerly the Catholic Foundation of Tennessee, Inc., and named for the diocese’s first bishop, has assisted many of these parishes since 1969, providing grants to help them pay to build new churches, larger sanctuaries, or make needed renovations. It doesn’t end with churches. Any entity of the diocese can apply for a grant. Camp Marymount, the Catholic summer camp in Fairview, was a past recipient.
The Society has awarded $2.5 million in his history, ranging from $3,000 to $100,000 per grant. A 2016 grant recipient was St. Luke Church in Smyrna, which received $50,000 to help with the $2.74 million project to build a new church.
It would be easy to say that compared to the large cost, $50,000 is barely a drop in the bucket, but longtime parishioner Hale Meacham would be quick to correct. That is because in carrying on the legacy of Bishop Miles, who traveled on horseback during his tenure to make sure that even the farthest and smallest parishes felt like they were a vital part of the diocese, the grant is more than money. It’s an acknowledgement to a parish that it is part of a larger family.
“It’s love from God,” said Meacham, who joined St. Luke in 1984. “Those people are tremendous … they wanted us to succeed.”
The sentiment of being a part of something larger and not being alone in the midst of managing such large projects was shared by other past recipients of grants at the 2016 Annual Dinner and Meeting of Membership, during which the grants were announced. Father John Sims Baker, former pastor of St. Patrick Church in McEwen, that received a grant to build a new school building, noted that it is more than funding. “The feeling of not being alone and that there were others in our diocese that cared about the well-being of their school in McEwen was a very meaningful and powerful message,” he said at the meeting.
Rich Paladino of St. Anthony Church in Fayetteville said that the foundation’s support helped re-invigorate his parish’s fundraising efforts. “Last year’s award of $45,000 was a great boost to the parish and the support let them know they were not alone in their endeavor.”
Father Jacob Dio, pastor of St. Luke Church, upon accepting the grant last year, said the Society helps to give a “feeling of oneness with others in the diocese.”
The Bishop Miles Society raises funds for grants by the members’ dues. Memberships are taken throughout the year, but the first quarter leading up to the annual dinner is the height of bringing on board new members.
Membership in 2016 stood at 109, according to Sandra Jordan, secretary of the Society and Director of Grants and Giving for the Diocese of Nashville. Donations to the Society come through memberships, which start at $125 for an individual and $250 for a couple.
Meacham can’t say enough about the Society and its membership. “It’s not just the dollar amount,” he said. “It’s the people who make up the Bishop Miles Society. It shows how gracious and full of love they are.”
After meeting the members and seeing the results of what membership can do, Meacham and his wife decided to join.
Jordan said that the Bishop Miles Society is “leaving a legacy for the future by building churches.”
When Richard Pius Miles became the first bishop of Nashville in 1838, he traveled on horseback over the 42,000 miles the diocese then encompassed, visiting where there was “neither church nor clergyman” and going as far as Knoxville, Memphis and Chattanooga. That is why in 2016, the members decided to change the name from the Catholic Foundation of Tennessee, Inc., and honor the diocese’s first bishop by renaming it the Bishop Miles Society.
As for St. Luke in Smyrna, it won’t be a “small parish” for long. The church’s old sanctuary had a capacity of 250 and was “busting out the seams.” To better serve the parish’s 415 families, the new church holds 600 people in the pews and that is nearly full at the 11 a.m. Mass on Sundays. With the choir area and crying room, the capacity is closer to 700.
Had the parish not expanded, Meacham feared they would have lost families. The expansion was inevitable because the parishioners were ready to dig deep and give, he said. Now, they constantly have prospective new families checking out St. Luke.
“You hear about so much bad in the world,” he said. “But the Bishop Miles Society is a breath of fresh air. They are people who love and care and give for a good cause.”
This year’s annual dinner is set for April 20 at Cheekwood. The 2017 recipients will be announced then. The application period ended in early February, and applications are currently being reviewed by the board of trustees.
For more information about the Bishop Miles Society or to download the membership form, go to www.dioceseofnashville.com/annual-dinner-and-meeting-of-the-membership.