Building St. John Neumann Catholic Church

The new Farragut church juxtaposes medieval grandeur amid the shopping and subdivisions

The Parish of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, in Farragut, has a new building. And paradoxically, that building is old in many ways. The closest thing to it in the United States is probably the magnificent St. Louis Basilica, which houses the largest collection of mosaics in the world and took most of the 20th century to build, and which also inspired many elements of the Farragut church. Both buildings draw from the Romanesque architecture of the 10th century. Stout walls, arched portals, domes of cut stone held in place by gravity evoke permanence and, to many, God's presence on Earth. Stained glass and ornate carvings depict the bullet points of scriptural teaching. Hundreds of such churches and abbeys still stand throughout Europe, whether they're used or not. The elements have little impact upon them beyond the superficial.

If you happen upon the church by chance, the effect is a bit disorienting. It's surrounded on every side by very recent and expensive residential development. If you approach it from Knoxville via Grigsby Chapel Road, you'll pass four other churches which by comparison are—to be diplomatic—vernacular in the extreme. With landscaping still in progress at St. John Neumann, there's just enough exposed Tennessee clay matching the building's terra cotta roof tiles to suggest that some tectonic mishap somehow swallowed an abbey in Citeaux and thrust it forth here.

The building seats 900, and it's not uncommon for those who cannot be seated at mass due to space restrictions to take communion in the narthex, or lobby. The first steps toward creating this unusually grand building were taken in the mid-1990s. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville purchased the 42 acres on which the church sits, and shares with a school of the same name. Twelve years ago God, speaking through then-bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, told Father John Dowling to build Him a church in this wilderness of West Knox County. Ever since, Father Dowling has been very much the man with a mission. With support from his parish of 1,100 families, he designed and raised funds for this gorgeous $11 million church. The process by which the church was realized and the elaborately historical design of the building 
illustrate how the Catholic Church, here and elsewhere, is adjusting to a new millennium.

Cause to look up

Knoxville's St. John Neumann Catholic Church was dedicated in 1977, the same year Father John Neumann, the Bohemian immigrant who had been bishop of Philadelphia during the mid-19th century, was canonized. St. John Neumann remains the only American bishop made saint. He is reputed to have built 80 churches in and around Philadelphia during his eight-year tenure. St. John Neumann's remains are on view, encased in glass there, and there is a long list of modern-day miracles attributed to him.

The Farragut parish's original building is on Jamestowne Boulevard, and is currently the home of another congregation after eight years on the real estate market. That building is of a style that was ubiquitous during the last four decades of the 20th century. Low and spreading, those churches seem intent upon not rising above the nearby residential rooftops or calling attention to themselves. Some have been executed better than others, but there is often little to differentiate them from each other or the office parks and doctor's offices that the same architects were drawing for the same builders to put up around any corner. Usually, until the exterior décor was added, it was impossible to tell to which faith a new building might belong. That could not be said of St. John Neumann's new building.

Father Dowling is in his sanctuary on a sunny, late winter day that flatters the stained glass he helped design and commissioned. He socializes with grade-schoolers from the church's adjacent school, who are rehearsing for their first confession. There are multiple clusters of kids with teachers, and the priest and children are all whispering. The room's acoustically lively marble floors and amplifying vaulted ceilings and 85-foot-high dome make that courtesy moot. You can pretty much hear anything that anyone says in this room, outside of the confessionals.

Dowling explains his attraction to this antique architecture: "My sense of things is that the modern style is basically saying, ‘We're really rejecting what went before. It's not really another style; it's anti-precedent.' So it's basically saying there is no style."

Dowling's impression was that as church buildings changed, the mass changed.

"For me, in the context of the Catholic Church liturgy, the style became an amphitheatre," he says. "It was in the round, it was about comfort, it was about hearing and being close, bridging the gap between the priest and the people so that we're all in this together, so to speak. In some places the priest is not raised at all. Whereas maybe hundreds of years ago, the focus was on the difference between the priest and the people. They wanted to say, ‘Well, we've had enough of that.'

"Modern architecture is nothing about heaven, nothing about the past. No saints, let's rip out the statues. Let's take away anything that reminds us of our past and let's take away anything that reminds us of heaven, because we're about our gifts and what we as a people are doing in history right now."

With its cruciform floor plan, dome, and tower, St. John Neumann's new building is doubly connected to the Catholic past. The very grand and formal sanctuary—which could also be called a nave—certainly makes a break from the carpeted rec rooms of the late last century. But the building, inside and out, is inspired by an era of church design that utilized the building itself as an evangelical tool. Geared largely toward the illiterate of the Middle Ages, Romanesque spires and domes gave one cause to look up, toward heaven. Their sheer mass and the weight of the materials that formed them (Texas limestone in the case of St. John Neumann) implied grounding, an anchor for the ethereal. Mosaics, carvings, murals, and statuary all depicted the saints and miracles and scenes from the scriptures. Sunlight colored by stained glass was thought to make the interior space divine.

By all accounts, the decision to build Romanesque was made—although not unanimously—by the parish.

"I put out a survey asking people what they would want in a new church," says Dowling. "They put down the traditional elements—organ, stained glass, altar, marble. It wasn't everybody. But the majority of the people who responded wanted the cruciform style. I might have influenced that because I let them know what the styles were. I gave them a little background on church architecture before.

"That's what they said they wanted. I don't know what I would have done if they said they still wanted one more modern."

David Campbell is on the parish's building committee. He smiles at the notion that Dowling might have influenced the decision to build this church.

"Father knew what he wanted," says Campbell. "He prays a lot. And he was certain that it was going to work out just fine. We all followed his lead. If anybody's responsible for this church being here, it's Father Dowling. He put in the thousands and thousands of hours of planning, and negotiating, and meeting with people to get them to sign on and pledge. He won't talk about the money he raised to pay for things like the windows. The church raised seven figures just to pay for things like that, that weren't included in the budget."

Early non-supporter now representative

It's not for nothing that your mother warned against politics and religion as polite table conversation. People don't just have opinions about religion; they have beliefs and passionate feelings that have often shaped their entire lives. A physical church serves as both representative and repository for those beliefs. Imagine the tasks and tact required of the one person assigned to reconcile the strong will of his priest with the earthly aspirations of everyone invested and investing in the future of this new church, and then communicating something resembling a consensus to architects, general contractors, and many subcontractors. Meet Bob Byrne, parish representative.

"It's a pretty unorthodox approach based on current building standards," Byrne says. "A lot of the current architecture is more centered around a higher entertainment value, if you will. If you go to most churches these days, the focus is not on the Eucharist, or Christ-centered. It's more people-centered, based on seating in the round and that type of thing. The cruciform design takes you back to an older, more traditional style of worship that was around for many, many centuries, where it was Christ-centered. The focus is the tabernacle, the body of Christ. It is a big change based on modern church design. It's somewhat controversial even among people of our parish, who are used to the more old-style church we were in, which was kind of in the round."

Even before the economic downturn, St. John Neumann parish had its share of naysayers on the subject of replacing a dated, tight-fitting, but perfectly good building. And initially, Byrne was among them.

"I'm pretty pragmatic that way," says Byrne. "I was an early non-supporter of doing something on the scale that we've done, I must admit. From 10 years ago, even five years ago, it's like per square foot this is really an expensive building, shouldn't we do something different? I think you always have people who have a different tilt on that. The actual price of the building, with our general contractor, is going to finish close to $8 million. With the artwork, the statuary, the windows, the things that we supplied, including the mosaics, some other things like furniture, it's going to be close to an $11 million package.

"As far as the negative aspects, this is a tough time economy-wise. We're faced with a pretty significant debt for the size of the parish we are. If you hear the grumblings, that's pretty much what the grumblings are. By the same token, my mother reminded me that when I grew up in Michigan, the churches we were building then, people asked how are you going to make this economically feasible? It's so much money. But looking back on it now it's like, ‘Thank God we did that,' and it wasn't such a lot of money once you have a historical perspective on it a few decades later. It would cost twice as much today."

Bryan Pabst and his family moved to Knoxville from New Orleans in December 2005, in the wake of Katrina. Pabst says that his family has the habit of spreading out in the new St. John Neumann, and that he and his wife and three children have been trying different pews for their different perspectives during mass.

"Talk about miracles," says Pabst. "I've got kids who are happy to be getting dressed for mass.

"I've always had a spiritual faith," he says. "The building has increased my intellectual faith. By looking at the different artwork and sculptures which depict the teachings of the Catholic Church, it's like your own catechism every time you walk in there. Father Dowling does a good job of tying the building into his homilies and readings. That's part of his master plan. As a parishioner you don't really necessarily know what everything means. So it helps me reconnect to more of an intellectual interest. It is very much a teaching church. That's what I think is so cool about it. Nothing against any other churches. But you don't get that in other churches. You certainly didn't get it in the old church.

"We have some historic, beautiful churches in New Orleans. And I think that's one of the reasons when I visited the new church for the first time, you get the feeling that you're home and that you've always been there. It's like you're in the churches of old. It has a lot of similarities to basilicas and cathedrals. You want to be there."

From two acres to 42 acres

To a large extent, the number of Catholics in East Tennessee is increasing due to immigration from the Midwest and Northeast. Large urban centers like Cleveland and Pittsburgh can no longer employ the many thousands they did 50, or even 15, years ago. For retirees, the attractions of the Southeast are both many and obvious. A recent wire-service headline news item predicted the closing of 50 Catholic churches in Cleveland alone. St. John Neumann has grown by 100 families in the past few years, and is not the fastest-growing parish in the area. The Knoxville Catholic Diocese is building new churches and schools and even adding parishes. While raising funds for a building, St. Albert the Great, North Knoxville's new parish, has mass in space provided by St. Mary's Hospital.

Dowling is aware that the nostalgia of newcomers, who may have attended similar churches back in South Bend, Ind., or Toledo, Ohio, works—temporarily—to his parish's advantage.

"They say, ‘Gosh, this reminds me of Europe or this reminds me of my church back in New York,'" he says. "There's a fondness for something that reminds me of home. But that's obviously not going to hold the day. These people are going to pass on in the next 20 years or so and you won't have anyone for whom this church will remind them of home anymore. So it better attract more than just those who relate to it only because they relate to a former time. The intention of this is that it is beautiful for all time."

Jennifer Nelson attends St. John Neumann with her parents. Nelson is a former Catholic nun, and attended college in Ireland. The new building does remind her of churches she visited there. She says that there are also some important differences.

"My initial impression was that it was not what I thought it was going to be," Nelson says. "The church is a little plain, compared to what I thought it would be. I had been in several Irish cathedrals, Irish basilicas, even regular parish churches, and they were just spectacular—the statuary, the wood, everything would just totally blow your mind. That's what I was expecting. Our church is not quite as elaborate as the Irish churches. One thing I really miss and am disappointed is not present is the statue of Mary and Joseph. Every church I've been in has a statue of Mary and Joseph. We do have two beautiful stained glass windows, of each, on either side of the altar, but it's not the same. For me, being a convert, I really appreciate the use of statues. It really aids in meditation when you're at mass and I miss that."

Nelson admits that her biggest problem with the new building is basically that—its newness.

"I like to refer to it as residual energy, of things that have happened in the church," says Nelson, of the patina she remembers from older Irish churches. "I think that does leave an impression on everything in the church. And our church is just too new to have that kind of feeling. I think that it will come. It's going to take a while. I guess that's what I was hoping for, an Irish church."

Religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, likes the long view. Life, for the pious, is about nothing if not delayed gratification. David Campbell says part of the parish's long view includes 17 years of debt. But before the new building, there were equally problematic factors limiting growth.

"We were landlocked on two acres down there on Jamestowne Boulevard," says Campbell. "We had no room to expand. We talked about putting in a parking garage. We knew we were landlocked there. The Diocese wanted a school to come out west. A couple years later All Saints came along, and of course Knoxville Catholic moved there [from Magnolia Avenue to the site next to All Saints]. What kind of style the new church would be was something that was undecided."

St. John Neumann sits on 42 acres, shared with the primary school that preceded it. There is also a general use community center building penciled upon the property's plans. Byrne and Campbell acknowledge, smiling, that they may not live to see it.

Church plans precede Turkey Creek opulence

Over lunch on Campbell Station Road with Byrne and Campbell, less than two miles from St. John Neumann, there is the din and distraction of steady traffic creeping from Interstate 40 to the retail spectacle that is Turkey Creek. Both men insist that the new church and the design of the new church had nothing to do with that nearby shopping center. Campbell laughs and says he's happy to discuss Farragut because he doesn't live there.

"Farragut does have a lot of its values in the wrong place, I think," Campbell says. "But at the time we were planning this church, Turkey Creek was a Wal-Mart and a SuperTarget. The opulence hadn't arrived yet."

Byrne agrees, adding, "I think if we were in Toledo, Ohio, or Crossville, Tenn., and it was Father Dowling's dream and vision, it would have been built there.

"Part of the divine architecture is that you build something beautiful for God. It elevates people and stimulates their senses and brings them up, as opposed to tying them to the world. I think that's what the vision was behind this architecture, to take us beyond where we are, whatever that looks like around us."

"I converted from Lutheranism two years ago," says parishioner Jenny Hay. "The building was just getting underway. But Fr. Dowling was particularly gracious. I used to sneak over into the confessional, not to confess, but because I wanted a private place to ask my questions."

'God had another plan'

For many at St. John Neumann, Dowling and his church are one. Even to the casual visitor, it's clear that the building is part of his ministry. It stands as a testimony to what's possible. The art and architecture bear illustrations of both Old and New Testament stories that he draws from in every service. Dowling is persuasive in his telling of how he and God collaborated on the church's design.

"I had lots of time," says Dowling. "They said, ‘We'll take care of the money stuff.' I know nothing about building; I can't build a tree fort. I had plenty of time to think about windows. Some people thought that was all I cared about. But windows kind of shaped how big the church was going to be, in a sense. God had another plan."

He explains that he decided that the uppermost portions of each stained glass window would depict one of the mysteries of the rosary. There were 20 windows planned and necessary, but only 15 mysteries. In 1997, Dowling learned that, come 2002, Pope John Paul II would be adding five mysteries to the rosary. Problem solved.

"I think it's marvelous," says Hay. "It's not about the building, but the building is almost sacramental. It really is a means of grace that you can touch and feel and see and smell. Grace comes to you by means of this physical thing. I want to learn how to give tours of the building, it's such a marvelous evangelism tool."

According to Campbell and Byrne, contributions to the building fund came from non-parishioners and even non-Catholics. (With one exception, donors are not honored or memorialized by name on the building.) One parish retiree, John Irwin, gained local fame by returning to work in order to fulfill his pledge, and for three years now has donated every paycheck from his part-time Food City job to St. John Neumann. Many gave money and labor. St. John Neumann parishioner Phyllis Ide more or less created a miniature version of the new church on its second level. Grace under pressure, she was up against deadlines to design and decorate the church's Adoration Chapel, a small private space that's open for prayer and contemplation 24 hours a day. She taught herself to faux-paint plaster to match a donated marble altar, while she did it.

"The first time I walked down the aisle, tears just flowed," she says. "You were not in an auditorium. You were in a church."

As much as Dowling likes to talk about his new church, he seems equally pleased to remind people that it is still pretty much beside the point.

"The building is not going to save anybody," he admits. "As I've told people, it's all about individuals. Jesus is the temple of the holy spirit. The Church is the body of Christ. One human being is worth more than all the churches in the world. Even though we're building a beautiful church, and many people have been involved, ‘If the Lord does not build a house, in vain do the builders labor.' It's all about God becoming man and saving us through his son and us living forever. This is all going to be dust."