|Long-time St. William parishioner Kathy Marshall Key serves a piece of cake to Evelyn Menjiva during the parish’s 75th anniversary celebration on June 25. In recent decades, the Shelbyville area, and St. William Parish, has received an influx of Hispanic immigrants. Both English and Spanish Masses are celebrated every Sunday at St. William. Photos by Theresa Laurence|
St. William of Montevergine Church, which has grown from a typical small, rural parish to a much larger, predominantly Hispanic parish in the last two decades, marked its 75th anniversary with a unified celebration on June 25.
Bishop David Choby celebrated the bi-lingual anniversary Mass outside on a sweltering June morning with St. William pastor Father Louis Rojas, SAC, and former pastor Father Thomas Kalam, C.M.I., concelebrating.
During the Mass, young Hispanic men knelt in the grass alongside Anglo families and exchanged the sign of peace; afterwards, parishioners loaded up paper plates with fried chicken and spaghetti, tamales and tortillas.
The unified anniversary celebration was one more step on the long road the parish has traveled to bring the Hispanic and Anglo parishioners together. “It’s been a growing process,” said Pat Johnson, who has been a St. William parishioner since 1970. A long-time volunteer who has taught religious education classes, served on the parish council and done everything in between, Johnson said that “in time we’re becoming closer,” but there have been some bumps along the way.
Miguel Gonzalez, who grew up in Mexico and moved to Shelbyville from California in 1992, arrived just ahead of the biggest wave of Hispanic immigrants. He was instrumental in welcoming them to the parish, and bridging some of the cultural gaps between the Anglo and Hispanic parishioners.
|Parishioners hold hands during the Our Father prayer at St. William’s 75th anniversary Mass. Bishop David Choby was the principal celebrant at the Mass, concelebrated by pastor Father Louis Rojas, SAC, and former pastor Father Thomas Kalam, C.M.I.|
As more Hispanics began moving to the area in the mid-1990s, for employment at the local Tyson chicken processing plant, manufacturing jobs, and the low cost of living in Bedford County, the parish began to grow at an unprecedented rate.
The overflow crowd for the Sunday Spanish Mass “was out of control,” Gonzalez said, with 300 people regularly trying to squeeze into a church built in 1941 and designed to hold 120 people.
Having two communities from vastly different cultures adjust to sharing a small space was challenging, and it soon became clear that a new church was needed to accommodate everyone. Fundraising was a challenge, especially since many newly arrived immigrants from poor, rural areas of Mexico and Guatemala did not have much to give. “But they participate in fundraising by selling food and water after Mass, holding family dances and picnics,” said Gonzalez.
It took many years of planning, and many donors, grants, and parish fiestas to raise the money, but the community got it done, and on March 25, 2006, Bishop Choby dedicated the new St. William/San Guillermo Catholic Church.
The St. William Parish of today can trace its roots back to the earliest days of the Diocese of Nashville. According to parish history, the diocese’s first bishop, Richard Pius Miles, visited Catholics in the Shelbyville area and during the 1840s priests from Nashville ministered to these families in the courthouse, or in local Protestant churches.
The first Catholic church in Bedford County was dedicated by Bishop Miles in 1859, as St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Not long after, however, the Catholic population in Bedford County began to decline and the St. Joseph church facilities were sold to a Methodist congregation. The Catholic community in Shelbyville once again assumed mission status, served by priests from Chattanooga.
|St. William parishioners line up for communion during the 75th anniversary Mass, held outdoors on the church property on Saturday, June 25.|
In 1900, Paulist priests from the newly established Church of the Good Shepherd in Winchester traveled to Shelbyville to celebrate home-based Masses. The practice of saying Mass from home to home continued for more than 35 years, until the Paulists acquired a trailer chapel, named St. Lucy’s.
On the cusp of World War II, as more Catholics moved into the area, it was determined that the community once again needed its own church. The new church building was dedicated by Bishop William Adrian on Nov. 30, 1941, and the parishioners chose “St. William of Montevergine,” in honor of the patron saint of Bishop William O’Brien, president of the Catholic Extension Society.
After the war, Catholic population was again in flux and by 1965 it became an independent mission parish serving all of Bedford and Marshall counties. The first resident pastor, Father Frank Gardner of Glenmary Home Missioners, arrived in 1967 when there were only a few dozen Catholics in Bedford County.
In 1975 Father Gerald Peterson was appointed pastor and under his direction, the education wing/parish hall was added onto the old church building. Prior to that addition, all activities including religious education, committee meetings, potluck dinners, fundraisers and auctions were held at the former rectory on North Main Street.
‘You felt needed’
Long-time parishioner Pat Johnson remembers she “immediately felt at home” after moving to Shelbyville from suburban Minneapolis and finding St. William. She recalls the days when “everything was held in the rectory, in the living room or the kitchen.”
At that time, as the parish and the Catholic Church in general were adjusting to the changes of Vatican II, it was still a new concept for lay people to be so involved with parish life, and at St. William lay leaders were given space to step in take on many roles. “It was so small, you felt needed,” she said.
Parishioners started the Good Samaritan food pantry, and food was initially collected and distributed from the rectory property. Over the years, the effort has grown into a multi-congregation project with numerous volunteers who distribute food and provide help with utility bills to the needy of the community.
St. William experienced another change in 1983, when it again became an independent parish. A new Glenmary priest, Father Michael Langell, arrived to serve the parish. After that, the church was served by several diocesan priests. Salvatorian Father Paul Portland arrived in 2000 and began to offer bilingual services to the huge influx of Hispanic families. He helped launch the campaign for a new church, and his successor, Father Richard Driscoll, S.D.S., brought those plans to fruition in 2006.
Since that time, St. William of Montevergine has been served by Father Kalam, Father Richard Gagnon, S.D.S., and Father Rojas. St. William’s Hispanic Ministry has been served since 1997 by a series of rotating priests, including Father Gagnon, Father Rojas and others.
Many of St. William’s pastors have held membership in the local ministerial association which furthered the parish’s community outreach efforts. This includes annual joint services at Thanksgiving with other denominations, as well as combined summer bible school, membership in Church Women United, and other organizations.
St. William has continued to meet the challenge of combining Anglo and Hispanic heritage within one church family. One of the best facilitators for this process has been the annual Fall Festival, held every September, which is the main annual parish fundraising event. The parish now has a combined Anglo and Hispanic parish council, which fosters ongoing communication and unity between the two groups.
While St. William has lost some of its Hispanic parishioners to other churches in recent years, “St. William is still a strong place for Hispanics,” said Gonzales.
“St. William is a wonderful place to raise your family and grow in your faith,” said Johnson, who raised four children in the parish. “We’ve been blessed to have it.”