Paulists leaving St. Patrick's Church | Public Spaces
It was an emotional announcement that the Rev. Timothy Sullivan had been dreading for weeks.
"This is difficult for me," the 62-year-old pastor announced while choking back his words.
"But due to a shortage of available priests, the Paulist Fathers have made the decision to end our service at St. Patrick here in Memphis."
The congregation sat in stunned silence.
Father Tim had to repeat the difficult speech three times on Sunday, Feb. 3.
The Paulists been a mainstay at St. Patrick through thick and thin.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the dining room in the St. Patrick rectory to meet with his top lieutenants as marches during the Civil Rights Movement began at the adjoining Clayborn Temple.
The dining room has been converted to a chapel where old timers recall Dr. King's visits.
After King was assassinated at the Lorriane Motel less than a half mile from the church doors on April 4, 1968, the congregation slipped away precipitously.
White flight reduced the congregation to a handful of families.
But the Paulist Fathers remained rock solid in their commitment to the parish.
They baptized babies, buried the dead and ministered directly to the poor who filled 38126, the lowest income zip code in what the U.S. Census Bureau currently calls the poorest city in America.
As the church membership reached a low ebb, the remaining congregants decided they would become a mission church to the impoverished neighborhood.
This would include all kinds of outreach to nearby Foote Homes and the poor people surrounding the public housing complex.
Dozens of Paulist Fathers have served in Memphis starting in 1954.
The religious order founded by Father Isaac Hecker in 1858 is devoted to spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ in North America.
Like so many religious orders, the Paulists face a manpower shortage.
They've decided to redeploy their remaining troops to places where they can make the most impact, like the booming St. Austin Catholic Church in Texas directly across from the grounds of the state capitol.
In addition to the large parish, the Paulist Fathers serve students at the University of Texas main campus.
"Rest assured St. Patrick Church will remain open," Father Sullivan told his congregants.
Bishop Terry Steib, the leader of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, is expected to appoint a diocesan priest to lead where the Paulists have served so long. The leadership change is expected to take place in June 2013.