Paulist fathers celebrate six decades of service to Memphis | Community Spirit
In celebrations with equal parts heartache and joy, hundreds honored the Paulist Fathers six decades of ministry in Memphis.
A weekend of events at St. Patrick Catholic Church and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception were held June 28-30 to thank the departing Catholic priests for their marathon of service. Fr. Tim Tighe, a Paulist priest who served St. Patrick parish from 1969-1978, told a large dinner audience in the Cathedral's Marian Hall, "You gave us an enormous amount of love and if we make it in the future, it's because of you. Thank you so much for the love story we have shared."
One of the key players in the love story was Ms. Eddie Mae Hawkins, who served as parish cook for the Paulist priests for more than 30 years. An African-American woman who still worships at Progressive Baptist Church around the corner from St. Patrick's downtown campus, the smiling Hawkins recalled highlights of her time with the Paulists.
"One time we had a big dinner, about as many people as here," Hawkins told the Cathedral crowd of 300. "Fr. Tim just grabbed me by the hand and we stood in the floor and danced. I think everybody was surprised but we weren't surprised."
Hawkins remembered, recalling a moment when Memphis was far more racially segregated and the spectacle of a white priest dancing with an African-American woman raised eyebrows, even among members of St. Patrick's, one the city's most progressive parishes. Hawkins served five Paulist pastors and dozens of associate pastors in her tenure. "We've been through good and bad. There's a song that reminds me of the Paulist Fathers: May the Work I've Done Speak for Me." Ms. Hawkins said, "I hate to see 'em go."
The Paulists arrived at the Downtown Memphis parish in 1954 just as the Civil Rights Movement began taking shape in the American South. The Paulists found themselves thrust into the epicenter of a seminal moment of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis with the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike.
St. Patrick adjoins the now shuttered Clayborn Temple, gathering place for all the strikers' marches, including two led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The late Fr. Bill Greenspun, a former St. Patrick pastor, wrote a reflection on his time at the parish that was published in the Paulist Celebration Weekend booklet. Greenspun wrote about the turbulent days of the strike that led to a worldwide spectacle, the assassination of Dr. King. Greenspun wrote that St. Patrick became the rallying place in the black community for white support of the strikers.
"On the days of marches, the nuns, priests and laymen who were in sympathy with the cause of the union, gathered in St. Patrick's Church for a prayer service and lined up in the street behind the garbage men," Greenspun wrote.
"We marched most Saturdays," Fr. Charlie Martin told the Marian Hall audience, remembering his St. Patrick years from 1968-70.
Martin said the Paulists made a deliberate decision in dialogue with Bishop Joseph Durick to "change the direction of the parish to a focus on the neighborhood."
Martin said, "It wasn't popular with everybody but as some congregants were leaving one door, the kids from the neighborhood were coming in the other door."
St. Patrick sits in 38126, the lowest income zip code in Memphis, the poorest city in America with a population over 500,000, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
So the Paulists were constantly ministering to some of the poorest people in the country, largely African American.
America's priest shortage led to the Paulist pull out from Memphis.
The Very. Rev. Michael McGarry, Paulist Fathers President, called the decision to leave ministry at St. Patrick Church in Downtown Memphis, "heartbreaking."
The Paulist President spoke to hundreds assembled for a dinner in Marian Hall at the Cathedral where he explained that most of the priests who belong to the small Catholic order come from the east and west coasts and would joke when the prospect of moving to Memphis, wondering aloud, "can I get The New York Times there?" But McGarry said after serving the racially integrated congregation of St. Patrick that includes street people as well as the well-to-do, Paulist priest were "converted."
"They have been converted and left part of their hearts here," McGarry said. "This is a great parish, " McGarry said. "The Holy Spirit is here, animating you, " the Paulist President said. "The Holy Spirit has come long before the Paulist Fathers and will be with you long after we're here, " McGarry said.
The crowd gave standing ovations of outgoing pastor, Fr. Tim Sullivan and Fr. Bruce Nieli, a St. Patrick based evangelist who travels the world proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Fr. Eric Peterson, a Diocese of Memphis priest, was appointed new pastor of St. Patrick by Bishop J. Terry Steib.
Peterson spent the past decade ministering to St. Mary's parish in Downtown Memphis after the departure of the Franciscan Friars. After the Paulist farewell, Peterson joked that he prays the Dominican order continues to staff St. Peter Catholic Church in nearby Downtown Memphis or he might be transferred there.