From its very beginning, consecrated religious orders of men and women have helped shape Catholic life in the Diocese of Nashville.
The diocese’s first bishop, Richard Pius Miles, was himself a member of a religious order, the Dominicans.
When he was given responsibility for leading and building the Church in Tennessee in 1837, he had no parishes, no priests, and precious few Catholics. He needed help. The first to answer his call were fellow Dominicans, like Father Joseph Jarboe and Father James Aloysious Orengo.
In 1842, he brought to Nashville six Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Ky., the first women religious to serve in the new diocese.
Since those early days, scores of consecrated religious have lived and served in the diocese, including Dominicans, Benedictines, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, Franciscans, Carmelites, Jesuits, Salvatorians, Precious Blood priests and sisters, Little Sisters of the Poor, Josephites, Glenmarys, Blessed Sacrament Sisters, School Sisters of St. Francis, the Daughters of Charity, Sacred Heart Sisters from Mexico, Paulists and Fransalians.
They’ve built parishes and schools and hospitals. They’ve fed the hungry, cared for orphans, educated children, welcomed immigrants, and spread the gospel through word and deed.
|Father James Aloysious Orengo
As the first official priest for the diocese, Father Jarboe was pulled in every direction.
He attended to the wounded throughout the Civil War, including the bloody Battle of Shiloh. In his later years, he was a chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and St. Mary’s Orphanage. It was said that he always brought the children fruit, and they called him Santa Claus.
Bishop Miles recruited Father Orengo to come to America and Tennessee when he was a student at the Dominican seminary in Viterbo, Italy. He served 25 years in the diocese, building churches in Franklin, McEwen, Columbia, Pulaski, Edgefield Junction, Gallatin, Covington and Jackson, among others. He bought land for a church in Fayetteville, and pulled churches in Clarksville and Shelbyville out of heavy debts.
Father Orengo is still closely identified with St. Patrick Church in McEwen, which he founded to serve the many Irish immigrants in the area. The Irish Catholic sheep herders and farmers in the area welcomed the Italian priest, and he quickly endeared himself to them.
Another priest recruited to serve in Tennessee was Father Emmeran Bliemel, a Benedictine, who as pastor of the Church of the Assumption served the German-speaking congregation there.
|Father Emmeran Bliemel, a Benedictine, and Father Joseph Jarboe, top photo, a Dominican, were among the consecrated religious who helped build the Diocese of Nashville.
During the Civil War, Father Bliemel was a Confederate Army chaplain and was killed at the Battle of Jonesboro, Ga., while ministering to a fallen soldier.
At the beginning of the Civil War, four Dominican sisters from Ohio arrived in Nashville to open a school for girls. That school, St. Cecilia Academy, and the congregation the sisters founded, The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, are still going strong. The Nashville Dominicans serve as teachers and school administrators in dioceses across the country, in Canada and in Australia. Over the last 30 years, they have been one of the fastest growing orders of religious women in the country.
The end of the Civil War brought the Sisters of Mercy, who in 1866 opened St. Bernard Academy. The Mercy Sisters’ work in schools spread from one end of the state to the other and in the nearly 150 years since, they’ve taken on a variety of ministries, including opening hospitals, serving in the parishes, and assisting the poor.
Their influence on the diocese through all the people they’ve touched continues today. Mercy sisters continue to actively serve in ministries in the diocese to and the order operates a retirement home for the Sisters in Nashville, where they also host retreats.
The Precious Blood priests and sisters came to Tennessee in the 1870s to serve communities of German Catholics at the Church of the Assumption in Nashville and at a string of parishes in Lawrence County, where a Catholic organization was selling farmland to German Catholics.
The rolls of the parishes in Lawrence County are still full of the German names of their founding members.
Bishop Thomas Byrne, the fifth bishop of Nashville, like his predecessors, invited members of religious orders to come to the diocese to fill certain ministerial needs.
|Sister Scholastica Kehoe, D.C., served as administrator at Saint Thomas Hospital, which was founded by the Daughters of Charity in 1898, from 1904 until her death in 1927. She is credited with being a profound influence on the hospital’s development. She also served as director of the School of Nursing and in 1920, inititated the first standard nursing curriculum in Tennessee. She was in the forefront of the move to establish nursing as a profession.
Determined to build a Catholic hospital in Nashville, Bishop Byrne convinced the Daughters of Charity of Emmitsburg, Maryland, to come to Tennessee and open Saint Thomas Hospital in 1898.
For more than 100 years, the Daughters were a fixture at Saint Thomas, providing care to the sick, inspired by the healing ministry of Jesus Christ. They also took on new responsibilities during their time in Tennessee, teaching and running schools, serving the poor through Catholic Charities of Tennessee, and helping to found the Ladies of Charity in Nashville.
In recent years, as their numbers have declined, the Daughters worked hard to form lay people to carry on their ministries in their stead. In 2014, they left the diocese to serve where they are more needed.
Bishop Byrne also wanted to evangelize among the African-American community. Father Thomas Plunkett, an Irish native and a Josephite priest, arrived in 1900, finding only one black Catholic in Nashville.
He set about building a new church and converting many souls. With the help of St. Katherine Drexel and the order she founded, the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, Father Plunkett build Holy Family Church and School and Immaculate Mother Academy to serve African-American families and students. The church and schools continued to operate until the 1950s.
St. Katherine and her order also helped found St. Vincent de Paul Church and School to serve the African-American Catholic community. The parish still thrives today.
One of the students of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters at St. Vincent was Sister Sandra Smithson, who is a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis. She eventually returned to Nashville and started Project Reflect and Smithson Craighead Charter School to serve a new generation of African-American families and children.
Throughout the history of the diocese, Franciscans have served as pastors in parishes throughout Tennessee, including at St. Vincent. One of those Franciscans, Father Ferd Cheri, O.F.M., will be ordained and installed as an auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, his hometown, on Monday, March 13.
The impact of the Paulist priests is still felt in Franklin County where they helped build a thriving Catholic community in the early 20th century and then pioneered some innovative evangelization techniques throughout the area.
In the 1930s, Paulist Fathers James Cunningham and Thomas Holloran believed they could reach more Catholics if they could bring the Mass to them. They converted a trailer into a rolling chapel – St. Lucy Church-on-Wheels – equipped with a public address system, living quarters, an altar for Mass and a movie projector.
They traveled throughout the area winning new converts. St. Margaret Mary Mission in Alto was founded in 1938 as a direct result of the Paulists trailer chapel ministry.
Like the Paulists, Glenmary priests and Salvatorian priests have served parishes in rural areas and small towns throughout the diocese.
Recent years have seen new orders come to Middle Tennessee to continue serving the local church. Priests from India, members of the Carmelite of Mary Immacualate and the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, serve in parishes throughout the diocese.
And Sacred Heart Sisters from the Diocese of Parral, Mexico, came to Nashville in the late 1990s to work with the diocesan Hispanic ministry serving the growing Latino population.
As they have done since the beginning, religious orders continue to shape Catholic life in the diocese.