Our story began in 1789 when Father William Roham spent a year in this area attempting to establish a colony of Catholics. It was not until after the Bishop of Nashville made a missionary tour of East Tennessee in 1838 that Catholicism began to take root.
Father Emmanuel Francis Callahan and his horse “Rebel” became a familiar sight in the 34 counties of East Tennessee, establishing Johnson City as his headquarters because of its railroad lines. In 1902, Father Callahan purchased a small cottage on Walnut Street for $1,200 which he converted into a chapel and dedicated it to St. Francis de Sales. Mass was held on the first Sunday of the month. Around this time, the VA began in Johnson City and Mass was celebrated there twice a month.
Several years later when congregation had grown to ten families. Father Callahan felt it was time to build a parish church in Johnson City. In 1905, he purchased the Old Burrow Hill Estate between Main and Market Streets for $8,500. The small wooden house on a hill overlooking Market Street became Johnson City’s first Catholic Church and was named Mount St. Mary’s. In 1916, the Dominican Fathers of St. Joseph assumed responsibility for the parish and the name was changed to St. Mary’s.
In the early 1920s, the expansion of the rayon mills in Elizabethton brought many Catholics to the area. Despite the impact of the Great Depression, funds were raised to build a new church. The Gothic brick church was dedicated on February 8, 1931. The membership had increased and it was necessary to celebrate two Masses on Sunday. The priest also had responsibility for the mission churches in Elizabethton, Kingsport, Greeneville, Rogersville, and Erwin.
St. Mary’s School first opened in 1931 under the leadership of the Sisters of Mercy from Nashville. Over the next 20 years, the school struggled and was closed and reopened on multiple occasions. In the early 1950s, under the pastoral leadership of Father Michael Snider, funds were raised to finance a new school which was dedicated on October 17, 1954.
The population growth in East Tennessee in the 1970s brought many Catholics to the area. The church on Market Street was experiencing growing pains. A Land Fund Drive was conducted and in October, 1980, the property on Lakeview Drive was purchased. Ten years later, a multi-purpose center was completed; school started in September and Masses were celebrated in the facility on the weekend. Construction began in 1999 on the building in which we now worship as a community. The new church facility was dedicated on December 2, 2000, by Bishop Joseph Kurtz.
From her humble beginning, the Church in northeast Tennessee has thrived and continues to grow. The 79 years of service of the Dominican Fathers established a visible Catholic presence in the area. At the time of the formation of the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988, St. Mary’s was the largest of the northeast Tennessee Catholic communities. Under the spiritual leadership of diocesan priests, St. Mary’s Catholic Church has experienced continued growth and currently has a registered membership of 1400 families.