yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee


Sr. Venard Niehaus, OSF

This history of the church appeared in Treasured Recipes, a fund-raising cookbook published circa 1989.

Catholic Beginnings

When West Tennessee was being settled in the early nineteenth century, few Roman Catholics could be found in the area. Most of the emigrants who came from the East coast were English and Scottish in origin and strongly Protestant. Among the few exceptions was the family of Henry Barry, who had settled near Bolivar after migrating from Bardstown, Kentucky. He had heard that there were teachers in Tennessee (1).

Mr. Barry's son, Valentine Darry Barry, became a circuit court judge and was the most influential Catholic in the district. In 1832, he visited Bishop Kenrick in Philadelphia, requesting that a priest be sent to West Tennessee. This did not happen, however, until seven years later.

In 1839, a group of Catholics from Memphis visited Bishop Miles of Nashville, and again requested a priest to serve the area. Bishop Miles sent Father Joseph Stokes, a priest of Irish descent.

Father Stokes, traveling on horseback, went to Ashport in Lauderdale County where he spent a week. He was the first English speaking Catholic priest to preach the Word of God in West Tennessee (2). From Ashport, Father Stokes went on to Memphis, where he was received with great joy by the Catholic people. He offered Mass in the log cabin academy owned by Eugene Mageveny.

Bishop Miles made the first episcopal visitation in 1840. The Catholic Almanac of 1840, states that Memphis and Jackson were stations - probably missionary headquarters - but that services were also held in Ashport, Bolivar, and LaGrange by Father William Clancy. Father Clancy was succeeded by Father Michael McAleer, who built the first church in Memphis, St. Peters (3).

Lexington, Tennessee

Four grave markers singularly designed with crosses, memorialize the only known Catholic family in the early history of Lexington. The oldest is that of Daniel Barry, M.D., who practiced medicine in West Tennessee until his death in 1891. He and his wife, Eliza J. Moore Barry, had eight children. Eliza Jane Barry died in 1876 at the age of 46.

Doctor Barry's second son, William V. Barry, was the first editor and publisher of the Lexington Progress beginning in 1884. Goodspeed's History of Henderson County describes him as follows: "He is an earnest Catholic Democrat. He is a pleasant courteous gentleman and very popular" (4).

In 1883, William married Mollie A. (Mary Ann) Dennison. Three children were born to them, Charles L., Henry D., and Catherine Marie (5). These were the people who kept alive the Catholic tradition in Lexington. Technically, they belonged to the Sacred Heart Parish in Humbolt; however, a Catholic priest occasionally stopped in their home and held services for them. When Mary Ann died in 1945, and again at the time of William Barry's death in 1948, a funeral Mass in the home and graveside services were held by a Catholic priest (6).

Because of his Catholic heritage and because of a deep sense of justice for an oppressed faith, William L. "Dick" Barry (son of Henry D. Barry) who declares himself "not a religious man," has shown personal interest in the construction of a Roman Catholic Church in Lexington.

In the sixties, Catholics began moving to Lexington, due largely to the transfer of factories from the North. Century Electric Co. had sent scouts to determine whether Catholics would be accepted in a territory so dominantly Protestant. They returned with favorable reports. In 1965, Jack Barni came to Lexington in charge of Industrial Engineering. In that same year, Ken Lanter arrived as plant manager. His wife, Virginia, and family followed in August 1966. They attended Sunday Mass at St. Mary's in Jackson, thirty miles distant and sent their children to religious education classes there.

Six weeks after Mr. Lanter's family moved to Lexington, he was stricken with a heart attack and died, leaving Virginia and three children. Four years later, Virginia and Cliff Bullock, a close friend of the family, were married. Through the invitation and encouragement of Bishop Dozier, Cliff joined the Catholic Church on Easter Sunday 1975, and has been an active, valued member from the beginning.

In 1967, Lynn Richardson, a Roman Catholic, moved to Lexington, the native city of his wife, Madge. When Lynn died in June 1980, Fr. Albert Kirk held a sunrise service at his graveside in Union Baptist Church Cemetery. Madge and her sons, Eric and Roger joined the Church in 1984.

In the decade of the 70's, came Robert and Dorothy Clark, John and Bea Lodes, Jack and Alma Barni, Ted and Jeanette Thiele, all from Missouri; Vick and Helen Buckholtz from New York joined the small group in 1972, as did Lucien Cravens and family from Memphis, also Eileen and Garry Dryer and Valerie and Jerry Grabosky.

In 1973, the Catholic parish grew with the arrival of Joe and Judy Wall from Jackson, LaWanda and James Blowers from Missouri and Mark and Kay Bartel from Iowa. Since these were people who had been active in well established parishes, they were understandably distressed at the absence of a local Catholic Church.

Their predicament was the topic of conversation at the afternoon cookout in the spring of 1974, that resulted in action. LaWanda Blowers and Kay Bartel composed a letter to Bishop Carrol Dozier of Memphis. The Bishop, who had just reflected on the needs of this rural section of his diocese, found Mrs. Blowers' letter on his desk. The coincidence convinced him that the Holy Spirit was directing him. He promptly arranged an appointment with the Blowers and Bartel families for the following Saturday.

History was made as Mark and Kay Bartel, with sons, Chris and Craig, and James and LaWanda Blowers met with Bishop Dozier on that Saturday in Memphis. During the summer of 1974, four seminarians came to conduct religious education classes in Lexington. On September 14, 1974, the Bishop celebrated Mass in Lexington at the Methodist Church followed by a pot-luck supper. At that time, he appointed Mark Bartel "Bishop of Lexington".

The first steering committee for a parish council met on October 16, 1974, at the home of the Bartels. They agreed upon two main items:

  1. Religious education for the children.
  2. Sunday Mass in Lexington.

A committee was appointed to investigate how these items might be realized. The minutes were signed by Mark Bartel, Ted Thiele, LaWanda Blowers, and Mary Brilley.

In the meantime, Bishop Dozier had asked the Adrian Dominicans to finance four Sisters to work in the rural area of the Memphis Diocese. When the Sisters arrived in 1977, Cliff and Virginia Bullock offered their home at Pine Lake as a temporary residence. Sister Angela Suzalla, O.P. served the Lexington parish as the pastoral associate.

Sister Angela suggested that the best way for an outsider to assess the family atmosphere of the congregation is to attend a regular Sunday morning liturgy and observe what takes place after Mass. "People don't hurry away. They stay and socialize."

Bishop Dozier blessed the new store-front church on September 19, 1981, and named it the Church of St. Andrew the Apostle. His comments in Common Sense: "The Catholics in Lexington have been meeting in the Methodist Church through the kindness of their minister and congregation, but now they have a store-front church. They have panelled the area for liturgy and made a beautiful altar. It was a pleasant surprise to see how tastefully it had been transformed from a store into a place of worship."

Early in 1982, some of the church members organized an Altar Guild. This group, which met monthly, sponsored the first bazaar held November 6,1982.

Sister Angela terminated her service at St. Andrew's in 1982. During her five years as Pastoral Associate, she had endeared herself to Protestants, as well as Catholics.

On August 25, 1982, Sister Clara Stang, a Franciscan Sister from Little Falls, Minnesota, arrived to make St. Andrew's her new home. Father Al Kirk along with the Parish Council had interviewed her in March and hired her for the part-time position of Pastoral Associate of St. Andrew's. Bishop Dozier appointed her to another part-time Diocesan position, Diocesan Coordinator of Rural Ministries for the Memphis Diocese. In this position, she would work with the Catholic churches and missions in the twenty counties outside of Shelby in West Tennessee.

The First United Methodist Church in Lexington, in a spirit of true Christian hospitality, hosted the little congregation for Sunday Mass, which was initially celebrated by Fr. Bill Stelling from St. Mary's in Jackson.

As the parish grew, so did its needs, and now discussion focused on a parish center. In July 1981, they decided to rent a store-front at 39 East Church Street at the cost of $225.00 a month. The building had at various times, housed a theater, several kinds of stores, and most recently a Salvation Army Headquarters. The parish truly experienced the Church as the "Mystical Body of Christ". Each one contributed according to his/her expertise. After much scrubbing, varnishing, rewiring, plumbing, and carpenter work, the building was readied for worship. The first Mass was celebrated by Father Richard Gantert on August 14, 1981.

The close family spirit displayed when the parishioners first met and grew during the pioneer period of challenge, has been very consciously developed and retained over the years. An article in Common Sense says, "It is a store-front, but it has a lot of closeness and love and family atmosphere, which is developed through people worshipping together." The spirit is well expressed in a poem by one of the parish members.

We are the Catholic Church as such
Our beginnings simple, with a common touch.
No stained glass or inspiring steeple
Just a few faithful people.
Our place of worship on loan,
Though adequate, not a place of our own.
A saint named Andrew summoned to assist.
Our prayers, his pleas, God can't resist.
A meeting place is found,
The rent within reason, the floor and walls sound.
Will it ever become a Church? we ask.
How silly a question when all accept the task.

T. Cleary (August 1981)

Parish Council

The parish council, which had been organized in 1981, gradually became the backbone of parish activity. After a period of study in 1983, the members drew tip a constitution which clarified their purposes. Through active committees this body then provided leadership and direction for the members of the congregation. It served as a co-ordinating body for all organizations and group activities within the parish.

The Building Project

From its beginnings, St. Andrew Catholic Community harbored the dream of having a place of worship they could call their own. The Parish Council took the first serious step toward realizing that dream when, in the spring of 1982, Fr. Al Kirk proposed that they start a building fund. By June 1982, they had Bishop Dozier's approval for the fund and the directive to search for a location.

The Building Committee, appointed by the Parish Council, did a detailed study of growth projects and the consequent needs of the parish and surveyed possible sites. In the meantime, Dick Barry, a Lexington attorney, deeded a plot of land to the church in the south side of town. This was not to be the location of the church, however. In July 1985 the Memphis Diocese purchased a ten acre plot at 895 North Broad Street at the cost of $42,000.

While parishioners continued to work at fund raisers for the building, Sister Clara wrote a grant request to the Catholic Extension Society of America. The Society was very generous and agreed to provide about one third of the cost of the structure which was $440,000.

With the help of the Diocesan Planning Office and the Building and Properties Commission, the project moved forward quickly. The entire community was involved in the planning. All Parish Council meetings were open, as were those of the Building Committee. All were involved in writing the parish mission statement from which the architects, Allen and Hoshall, designed the building. Out of the discussion and education grew a remarkable unanimity, and by the time the architects had presented a tentative plan, it was generally accepted.

The contractor was Quinn Construction Co. from Parsons, and Brother Willam Woeger, F.S.C. from Omaha, Nebraska, was the liturgical consultant -

The ground breaking ceremony took place on a rainy Sunday afternoon, October 12, 1986. After that date members of the parish stopped by dairy to watch the progress of the building. In mid-August they moved some of the furnishings and, although not all the new worship area furnishings had arrived: Fr. Kirk celebrated the first Mass there for the feast of the Assumption, August 14, 1987.

A gloriously warm and bright November 1, set the mood for the solemn dedication of the church in 1987. Bishop Buechlein symbolically unlocked the doors that day and led parishioners and friends into the worship area, where he presided at the beautiful ceremony of blessing and then offered the Eucharist. The service was followed by an open house.

In the foyer of St. Andrew Church is a plaque with the names of many of the people, relatives, and friends who have helped to raise this beautiful place of worship. The Catholic Extension Society and the Diocese of Memphis contributed much, but over the long haul, the 75 Catholic families of the Lexington area willingly shoulder the burden of finance and with grateful hearts, continue to pray for their benefactors.

Change and Growth

During the busy years of building, St. Andrew's community experienced gains and losses, change and growth. Through the dedicated leadership of Fr. Al Kirk, Sister Clara Stang, and Deacon Bob Reynolds, the building program became educational and unifying for the parish.

St. Andrew's welcomed new members, each offering unique gifts. Among them were Sister Tonie Rausch who arrived from Selmer in 1983 and remained in Lexington until 1985; Sister Venard Niehaus who came from Minnesota in September 1984; Tom Schutz from Minnesota, who worked as a volunteer in the evangelization of the unchurched from September 1985 to May 1986. Associate pastors from St. Mary's in Jackson, who served the parish, were Fr. Greg Fuller, Fr. Brian Szorady, and Fr. Dan DuPree.

In 1983, a choir was organized through the efforts of guitarists, Elaine Northern, Judy Wall, and Sherri Wagner. A year later, Henry and Dolores Pfountz donated an organ for choir accompaniment.

The parish continues to be involved in out-reach programs for the needy. Each Christmas they adopt a poor family, they contribute regularly to RIFA-Regional Inter-Faith Association, and help those in crisis. Six parish members attended classes in the hospice program, preparing them to care for the terminally ill in their homes.

Involvement in diocesan programs has kept St. Andrew's aware of the larger church. The parish participated actively in the "Thy Kingdom Come", a social justice awareness program. The Chrism Mass and other Diocesan celebrations enable this local church to relate to the Memphis Diocese. The highlight of this relationship was the day-long pastoral visit of Bishop Stafford in 1984. Again on March 29, 1987, St. Andrew's was honored by Bishop Buechlein's presence, when he came to celebrate for his first time the Sacrament of Confirmation. The confirmands were Karen Donovan and Michael Feurst.

In 1983, St. Andrew's began, for the first time, their RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program. This continues to be a means of parish renewal and a way of welcoming new members to our church. The highlight of each year is the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

On April 25, 1986, the parish was saddened by the sudden death of John Lodes. His funeral, the first at St. Andrew's Church, was celebrated April 28, in the store-front church in which he, along with Jack Barni, had spent endless hours of volunteer labor.

Throughout the approximately fifteen years of its existence, the Catholic Community has maintained a spirit of warm hospitality, resourcefulness, and enthusiasm. In reading the sources of its history, one is prompted to say, "seldom has so much been done for so many by so few."


  1. Dick Barry. Interview, August 24, 1986.
  2. Fr. Marquette, a French missionary, stopped there over 100 years earlier.
  3. Barry and Samuel Cole Williams. Beginnings of West Tennessee, pp. 194-195.
  4. Goodspeeds History of Henderson County, p. 842, quoted by Dick Barry.
  5. Ibid. and Lexington Cemetery.
  6. Interview with Dick Barry.

Return to Ann Mensch's Local Catholic Church History and Catholic Ancestors of Kentucky and Tennessee

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