Tennessee Catholic parish gets energy from nearby national park

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Chaz Muth

Tenn. (CNS) — When Huntsville, Alabama, resident Patrick Eads prepared to take
his family on a trip to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park last August, he
made sure to pack necessary vacation items, which included the address to the
nearest Catholic church.

and his wife, Rachael, made the 250-mile drive to Gatlinburg with their
1-year-old son to experience nature’s glory.

noticeably pregnant, eagerly joined her husband and son on the long hikes along
the Appalachian Trail to find the best views of the mountains and said the
majestic vistas, the sounds of the summer insects, the feel of the warm sun on
her face and the scent of the wildflowers growing along their route, energized

a day of navigating the Smokies, Patrick was feeling the need for spiritual
nourishment, so the lanky, bearded redhead packed up his family and headed to
St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gatlinburg for the 7 p.m. Saturday Mass.

Google search before leaving home helped him locate the parish and he was
thrilled that it was conveniently located near the town’s main strip.

Eads are among thousands of visitors who cross St. Mary’s threshold each year
and they are a driving force in the 81-year-old parish, said Carmelite Father
Antony Punnackal, pastor of the church.

Mary’s can seat 525 people if the church staff opens up its parish
hall and daily chapel, both of which can be exposed to the main altar. But,
it’s not unusual for 800 people to attend a Mass during the peak park visiting
times, Father Punnackal told Catholic News Service.

stand in the back, the side of the church and even stand outside when a Mass is
really packed, he said.

only have about 200 families registered in the parish, but you’d never know
that if you came here for Sunday Mass,” Father Punnackal said. “That’s why we
call this parish ‘the parish of the Smokies.’ It’s basically for the visiting parishioners.”

the Aug. 14 Saturday evening Mass, the priest asked members of the large congregation
to raise their hand if they were travelers visiting the park. A majority of the
worshippers lifted their arms to signify that they were indeed visitors.

never take a vacation from your faith,” said Mary Willis of Delaware, Ohio, who
was among the Catholics attending Mass at St. Mary’s on that sultry August
evening. “Why would you miss going to church on vacation?”

Mary’s pastor calls them the “visiting parishioners,” because he considers them
to be members of his church community, even if only for an evening.

are the majority,” he said, “and they treat this church like it’s their home
parish. They support this church like it’s their home parish. They are
tremendous contributors when the collection basket is passed around.”

parish is in solid financial shape because of the reliably generous support of
the visitors, Father Punnackal told CNS.

Mary’s Parish dates back to 1935 when a Knoxville couple donated a log cabin to
become the first Catholic Church in Gatlinburg, then a little-known valley of
English and Scotch-Irish settlers.

after President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains
National Park in 1940, visitors to the area began overcrowding the 40-seat log
chapel, prompting the parish to build its current church, which was completed
in 1953 and later expanded to include a parish hall and rectory.

Willis and her husband, Ed, exited the church following the Aug. 14 Mass, they
reminisced about how welcomed they felt by the priest and the other churchgoers.

Catholic community is universal and that was on full display this evening,” Ed
Willis told CNS.

was a comfort knowing that so many others in the church were also visitors and
even the locals went out of their way to make them feel at home, he said.

is the sort of energy that keeps this parish thriving, both financially and
spiritually, Father Punnackal said.

city of Gatlinburg, with an estimated population of about 4,000, also benefits
from the nearly 11 million visitors who travel to the Great Smoky Mountains
annually, by far the most visited national park in the U.S.

the picturesque streets are beautifully maintained early 20th-century
structures, hanging baskets with colorful plants strung from lamp posts, and they
were packed with cars and pedestrians on a summer afternoon.

main street leads to the entrance of the national park, where the Eads and
Willis families, along with millions of others, are able to take in all of the
gifts God has provided, Father Punnackal said.

to church after a day of seeing the Lord’s bounty made me feel complete,” Ed
Willis said. “I can’t think of a better way to spend my vacation.”

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Muth on Twitter: @Chazmaniandevyl.

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