Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Immaculate Conception
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 March 2019, 10:00am

The building

Dedicated in September of 1886, it is in the Gothic Revival style. The nave is wide, and there are no columns obstructing the congregation's view of the altar. What I assume is the original reredos is still against the east wall. There are two side altars; organ and choir are in a rear balcony. The stained glass windows are beautiful.

The church

The parish is the oldest in Knoxville and was founded in 1855. It has been administered by the Paulist Fathers since 1973. There is a strong emphasis on Christian education and faith formation. The Paulists have a commitment to interfaith dialogue, and I was pleased to note in the bulletin the pastor's notes on Jack Miles' new book entitled God in the Qur’an. There are four masses each weekend, regular opportunities for private confession, and, during the Fridays in Lent, Stations of the Cross (the stations in the church are quite imposing).

The neighborhood

Knoxville, a city in eastern Tennessee, is the third largest city in the state and was the state’s original capital. During the Civil War, Knoxville was a hotbed of both Union and secessionist sentiment even after Tennessee joined the Confederacy. After the war, the city enjoyed a booming economy spurred on by textiles and other manufacturing, but the Great Depression as well as foreign competition brought this to an end and the city fell victim to urban decay. In the 1940s Knoxville was dubbed the ugliest city in America by author and journalist John Gunther, known for his memoir Death Be Not Proud. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have witnessed a renaissance in Knoxville, and the city is now home to the headquarters of the Regal Entertainment Group, the nationwide chain of upscale movie theaters; Discovery Inc., owner of several major cable TV channels; and the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain. The soft drink Mountain Dew was first marketed in Knoxville. The church is in the center of the city, on Summit Hill, overlooking the main campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's thriving arts district, and the Knoxville railyards.

The cast

The pastor celebrated and preached. He was assisted by a deacon, three acolytes, four chalice bearers, and organist and cantor.

What was the name of the service?

Mass and First Scrutiny of the Elect.

How full was the building?


Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

Not really; no arch in the back. The kneelers, however, couldn't have been more comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A bit chatty.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

'Good morning and welcome to mass at Immaculate Conception.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Two combination missal/hymnals of GIA Publications: the 1996 hard-bound Ritual Song and the paperbound 2019 Breaking Bread. We used the former for the responsorial psalm and gospel acclamation, the latter for the opening and closing hymns, and could follow the order of mass in either.

What musical instruments were played?

A pipe organ. I was pleased to note in a fund-raising flyer that ‘acquiring a new or restored church organ’ is a long-term goal of the parish.

Did anything distract you?

A number of late arrivals, not atypical in Catholic parishes.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Stiff upper-lip. Deacon was vested in dalmatic. Torches accompanied the deacon to the ambo for the proclamation of the gospel. Bells were rung during the eucharistic prayer (which was the Gregorian canon). Except for the opening and closing hymns (both traditional), and the responsorial psalm and gospel acclamation, all of the music was Gregorian chant (in English, except for the Latin Agnus Dei) . There was no singing, congregational or choral, during communion. On the other hand, the peace was freely exchanged, and communion was administered in both kinds. And immediately after the dismissal, the Prayer to St Michael the Archangel, adapted by Pope Leo XIII from the rite of exorcism and said at the conclusion of every Catholic low mass from 1886 to 1964, was recited by the congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — The pastor was a very effective speaker.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The priest had noted earlier in the service that the congregation would be using the readings for Year A, especially appropriate for a service including the first scrutiny of the elect (a ceremony including prayers for catechumens who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil – the priest said that there is currently one such catechumen in the parish). Most of the sermon was based on John 4:1-28 (Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well). He noted that Lent has a two-fold focus: conversion and repentance. The gospel for this service is relevant to catechumens and their conversion. Lent also urges all of us to repent, to rediscover the gift of new life bestowed on us at our baptism.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

All of the Gregorian chant, so ably accompanied by the organist.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

All of the Gregorian chant, with which the congregation struggled. My sense has always been that this sort of musical agenda needs strong choral leadership, which this inner-city parish doesn't seem to have at the moment.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Nothing. The celebrant was waiting at the exit. He shook our hands but had nothing to say.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The parish's Knights of Columbus chapter prepares a pancake breakfast one Sunday a month, and this was that Sunday. We were in Knoxville for a music festival and had tickets to an early afternoon concert; just wasn't time for a sit-down meal.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 — The parish is worth a return visit, although I hope the congregation's chant is better on the next visit. I would welcome another chance to hear the pastor's preaching.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The pastor's sermon.

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