bout St. John Vianney Parish
A photo album is available to the left.
St. John Vianney Parish has a history as old as middle Tennessee Catholicism, and certainly older than the state itself. In the late 18th century, Hugh Rogan fled religious persecution in Ireland and accompanied John Donelson on the Tennessee expedition. Rogan settled on roughly 600 acres north of Gallatin, and for over 150 years, he and his family were a mainstay for area Catholics, opening their home, Rogana, to traveling priests who offered the Mass on a table there. This ancestral home has since been relocated to Bledsoe Fort County Park on Hwy 25, near Bledsoe Creek State Park.
About a hundred years later Samuel Fischer, an express agent in Gallatin, donated the land to build a Catholic church. On the condition that his wife’s grave, located on the property, be forever maintained, he also bequeathed his remaining land to that church, and was even buried beside her. Fundraising began, and on April 23, 1871, St. Peter’s Church was dedicated by Bishop Feehan. The pastor of St. Peter’s mission church was Father Patrick Ryan, cousin of Father Ryan, for whom one of our area Catholic high schools is named.
Unfortunately, soon after St. Peter’s was built, Fischer disappeared, and his creditors demanded that parishioners prove Fischer’s death before the church could have full possession of the land he had previously donated. As litigation dragged on, the parish resumed meeting at Rogana, declining to spend money on a building they might not ultimately own.
By 1891 the suit was settled, but St. Peter’s roof was collapsing, the plaster falling, and the foundation eroding, prompting Fr. Tobin to begin serious renovations when he became pastor of the mission in 1893. Reportedly, Miss Martha Rogan, granddaughter of Hugh Rogan, assisted the project by donating the statues of the Blessed Mother and of St. Joseph that are in our small church today. Though descriptions indicate that it was a pretty church, no pictures have been located of St. Peter’s. (If you have old photos of St. Peter’s and are willing to share, we would love to have copies. Please contact the parish.)
By 1927, however, age and parish growth mandated a new building. Fundraising letters helped. In particular, Bishop Morris of Little Rock responded by donating the main altar in memory of his father and his first childhood contact with a bishop. As a boy, Bishop Morris remembered attending and being inspired by the dedication of St. Peter’s. Parts of the old building were sold to a Methodist church, also adding to fund raising effort.
St. Peter’s main altar was cut in half to become the new side altars, while the statues, benches and choir railing were also retained. The new church drew on mission styles; the altar rail was based on the one at San Antonio de Pala, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, and the rose window, bell tower, and exterior cross were copied from other California missions. Construction was not completed until the late spring of 1930 due to the necessary diversion of a spring under the building site, and it was at that time that St. Peter’s became St. John Vianney parish. Bishop Morris preached the homily at the dedication on May 4, 1930, a homily that provides a great deal of the available early history of our church.
In 1930, the Dominican Sisters of St.Cecilia began their association with St. John Vianney, teaching catechism on Sunday afternoons and classes in the first parish school, opened in 1948. Sister Sabina, a convert and daughter of the local Hatcher household, was an early teaching sister. While the original school closed in 1965 due to a lack of teaching nuns, a second school was opened in 2003, and the Dominican sisters who promised to come back, did.
As was the case in building the first St. John Vianney church, old time parishioners recall a wet weather spring located under the school building, and overlooked during its construction. The basement of that building, now the parish office, still floods when it rains.
Despite its long history, St. John Vianney was not established as a parish until February 5, 1947, but Msg. Rohling, Fr. Grannis, Fr. Fassnacht, Fr. Ballinger, Fr. Murphy, Fr. Clement, Fr. Nidergeneses, Fr. Reilly, Fr. Walenga, Fr. Murray, Fr. Frank Moyher, Bshp. Choby, Fr. Sappenfield, and Fr. Gideon have all served as St. John Vianney pastors since that time. During World War II the capacity of the building was taxed, temporarily, as soldiers from the maneuver areas attended Mass and participated in parish activities, and although the relocation of a lock company in 1950 doubled parish numbers, the building remained largely sufficient.
In 1989, however, the arrival of a young energetic pastor, combined with a shift in the industrial base for Sumner County, led to a period of explosive parish growth. Printing and manufacturing moved in from a more heavily Catholic north, bringing with it a new ethnic diversity, and it was not long before placing chairs in the sacristy and offering 3 masses on Sunday were insufficient to allow everyone to comfortably participate. In fact, Easter and Christmas involved careful consideration of who should sit in whose lap, a strategy which inspired new fundraising and planning beginning in 1991.
Whether to remain on Water Street and whether to demolish the old church were the two hottest topics of discussion around the parish. Ultimately, the overwhelming feeling was that the parish should to stay put and keep its history. A neighbor on Water Street assisted with land donations, and the architectural firm Matchett and Associates, whose principals are parish members, was selected. On May 2, 1992, Bishop Niedergeneses broke ground for the new church. During construction, all parishioners were invited to sign their names and add their intentions to the main crossbeam in the roof. Don Slepski, a parishioner skilled in wood working, built the altar and sanctuary furnishings using a walnut tree removed during construction. Bishop Kmiec dedicated the church on August 29, 1993, averting another Christmas lap-sit.
Ten years later, groundbreaking began for a new social hall and school which opened in 2003 and is under the familiar direction of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia.
Once again we are beginning to feel the pressures of growth, as large immigrant populations have swelled our numbers and a parish school has increased our activities. Bishop Morris said, in his 1930 dedication homily:
What does the future hold? I am sure it will treasure in a golden casket the memories of the past. This day will always be a memorial to things that are gone, and a pledge of the greater things that are before.
What we know, is that our shared history is our golden casket, and our faith is a pledge of greater things to come.