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The Diocese of Nashville comprises the entire territory of the State of Tennessee. From its inland location and peculiar civil history, it has not profited much from the tide of immigration, and hence its Catholic development has been chiefly due to its own internal work. There is little need of consulting any historical references as to the growth of the Church in Tennessee since no such work of any importance exists. This is chiefly due to the fact that heretofore the diocese was in an embryo state and those who could write its history had neither time nor opportunity to do what was so much needed. Up to twenty years ago, or in the decade of 1880-90, much of the diocesan history could have been learned from the early pioneers of Catholicity, or their children, who were then living. The Diocese of Nashville was established 28 July, 1837, having been separated from the Diocese of Bardstown (now Diocese of Louisville ) and the first Bishop of Nashville was Rt. Rev. Richard Pius Miles, consecrated at Bardstown, 16 Sept., 1838. Before this date there is no authentic record of any ecclesiastical missionary work in what is now the State of Tennessee , except in sporadic efforts. The earliest records attainable are two letters in the archives of Baltimore, dated 1799, to Bishop Carroll from Father Badin, concerning an offer from John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee, that Father Badin might arrange for the immigration of at least one hundred Catholic families for whose maintenance the governor guaranteed separate tracts of land. The offer of the warrior-states-man was not accepted, however, although many distinctly Catholic names are to be found today among the inhabitants of east Tennessee, probably due to the fact that the insurgents of Ireland weresold into a species of slavery by the English government to the American colonists. That they or their children have fallen from the old faith of their fathers can be accounted for by the fact that the exiles had then neither church nor priests, nor Catholic schools. For a good many years the present writer has been seeking information as to early Catholic settlers and Catholic work, but must confess the evidence very doubtful as to whether the first priestly ministrations were in the neighbourhood of Nashville or Knoxville. Civic history and geographical position seem to give the preference to Knoxville. The first authentic records of a priest in Tennessee are contained in the archives of St. Mary's cathedral, Nashville, when Father Abell came (1820) from Bardstown to attend the few Catholics then living in Nashville. Shortly after his arrival, Father Abell undertook the building of the first church in Tennessee, at Nashville, a small building on what is now Capitol hill. The State Capitol now occupies the site. Father Abell visited Nashville as a mission for four or five years, and then (1849) Father Durbin took charge, and about the following year he was assisted by Father Brown who made Ross Landing (now Chattanooga) his headquarters, just previous to the advent of Bishop Miles. After a difficult journey on horseback and in a canoe from Bardstown, Ky., Bishop Miles took possession of his diocese and early in 1839, began his first episcopal visitation of Tennessee. At the end of his journey he declared that he did not find more than three hundred Catholics in Tennessee. In 1840, he again journeyed to Memphis to establish there the first church, under the management of Father McEleer; it has since been rebuilt as St. Peter's by the Dominicans.
In 1844 he laid the corner stone of St. Mary's cathedral, Nashville. In addition mission churches were established in outlying stations so that in 1847 Bishop Miles was able to report to Rome that he had 6 priests, 6 churches, 8 chapels, and a Catholic population of about 1500. In 1849 a church was erected at Jackson; in 1852 one at Chattanooga; in 1854 one at Knoxville; in 1856 one at MeEwen; in 1857 one at Edgefield (now East Nashville); in 1858 one at Shelbyville (later discontinued); and in 1858 one at Nashville (church of the Assumption). Bishop Miles died on 19 February, 1860, at the outbreak of the Civil War, and he was succeeded by Bishop Whelan. His diocese became the great theatre of war ; his cathedral was converted into a hospital ; his flock scattered. The burden proved too great for his strength, and in 1863 he was forced to resign. Two years later Bishop Feehan succeeded him. Under bis jurisdiction, new priests were added to the diocese, new churches were built, especially St. Patrick's (1866), St. Bridget's (1870), and St. Joseph's (1875), all at Memphis. In 1881 St. Columba's church in East Nashville was built, to replace the old St. John's church, which was burned down a few years previously. In the decade 1870-80, mission chapels were erected at Humboldt, Belview, and Lawrenceburg; Bishop Feehan reported to Rome (1880) that his diocese had 30 churches of which 18 had resident priests, besides numerous stations. This was a rapid growth, when we consider the ravages of pestilence which visited the people during 1873, 1878, and 1879, and which buried from the ranks of the Catholics in Memphis alone, twenty-two priests and thousands of lay people. In 1880 Bishop Feehan became the first Archbishop of Chicago, Illinois. Bishop Rademacher succeeded him as Bishop of Nashville in 1883, but owing to ill-health his work was somewhat retarded, although some progress was made. During his administration St. Joseph's and St. Patrick's churches were built at Nashville. In July, 1893, Bishop Rademacher was transferred to the Diocese of Fort Wayne, Ind., where he died in 1900.
In 1894, the present head of the diocese, Bishop Byrne, was consecrated Bishop of Nashville, and his work has not only been that of restoration, but also of great progress; while the ranks of the clergy have been strengthened by the addition of many new men. Faithful and tireless in his energy, scholarly in his attainments, he has aroused the latent zeal in his clergy and people. Among his many undertakings may be mentioned the building of the new procathedral, the enlarging of the Assumption church and St. Joseph's church at Nashville, the building of.the Holy Family church for coloured people at Nashville, the rebuilding of St. Patrick's church, and the building of the Sacred Heart church at Memphis, the building of the Holy Ghost church at Knoxville, besides numerous mission chapels throughout the diocese. In addition to this he has directed the building or enlarging of various institutions of charity and learning. He also convoked, 10 Feb., 1905, the first synod of the diocese, at which 34 priests were present, with 7 unavoidably absent. Scarcely had the diocese been formed, when its bishops and priests recognized the need of these institutions, and with their untiring energy, asylums, hospitals, and schools sprang into existence. Chief among them may be mentioned first of all that every parish having a residential pastor has also a Catholic school, and in addition there are four academies for young ladies, St. Agnes (Memphis), conducted by the Dominican (Ky.) Sisters, established in 1850; the Sacred Heart (Memphis), conducted by Dominican (Nashville) Sisters, established in 1890; St. Cecilia's (Nashville), conducted by Dominican Sisters at their mother-house, established in 1860; St. Bernard's (Nashville), conducted by the Sisters of Mercy, established in 1868. For the higher education and technical instruction of coloured girls, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (Pa.) conduct an academy at Nashville, established in 1905. The Christian Brothers at Memphis, since 1871, conduct a college for young men. For charitable institutions, there are two well equipped orphanages, one at Nashville and one at Memphis ; St. Joseph's Hospital at Memphis, erected in 1885, is conducted by the Sisters of St. Francis, while St. Thomas' Hospital at Nashville is conducted by the Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd have a home at Memphis for the reformation of wayward girls, and the Little Sisters of the Poor have an institution at Nashville for the aged and infirm. There are also in the diocese the Franciscans and the Dominicans, each with a parish church at Memphis ; the Josephite Fathers, having churches at Nashville and Memphis ; the Paulist Fathers, with a Mission house at Winchester ; the Sisters of the Precious Blood (Maria Stein), having a school at Lawrenceburg. Bishop Byrne has at present (1910) under his direction, 46 priests ; 25 parishes with a resident priest and parochial schools, and under Catholic care in schools and institutions for children, about 5000 pupils; the total Catholic population is between 20,000 and 25,000.
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