By Celine Klosterman
KNOXVILLE – When LaVonne Andrew joined St. Anthony Parish as a newlywed in 1951, she was impressed by the loyalty and giving spirit of fellow parishioners, especially the longtime farm families.
“Whenever there was a fundraiser, they were so generous with what they had, though this was not a wealthy parish by any means,” she recalled. And though membership in St. Anthony’s was much smaller than it is today, Mass attendance was steady, she added.
Today, Andrew continues to be impressed by the generosity that parishioners show in response to appeals for time, talent and treasure.
“It is a very active parish — more active than it’s ever been,” she said. That includes ministries of faith formation for children, youths and adults; social action; liturgy and music; church life and stewardship, retreats; and more.
Next month, parishioners will celebrate 135 years of ministering to the various needs of Catholics in Knoxville. On June 13, the feast of St. Anthony, parishioners will gather for Mass at 5:30 p.m. and a potluck afterwards.
They’ll have reason to celebrate thanks to the initiative of Irish immigrants who settled in what is now Marion County from 1845-50. Priests rode in on horseback a few times a year to celebrate Mass in settlers’ homes, baptize babies, administer the sacrament of reconciliation, witness marriages and perform graveside rites for the deceased.
By 1877, Catholics had built a church in Knoxville named St. Michael’s, according to a 2002 historical booklet for St. Anthony’s. That church was later torn down, and Bishop James Davis dedicated the first St. Anthony’s Church in October 1908. A Knoxville newspaper’s account of the celebration reads: “The new Catholic church of this city was dedicated yesterday, and, in spite of the muddy roads and the inclement weather, the entire building was packed to the doors by the faithful Catholics of the community and many well wishing non-Catholic friends.”
From 1945-48, 73 families joined St. Anthony’s, according to the 2002 booklet. “The increase was attributed to an influx of veterans, following World War II, who came here to work at the expanding VA Hospital and in nearby industrial communities such as Des Moines.”
In response to the growing Catholic population, the first St. Anthony’s School opened in 1948. “It was in a house at that time,” Andrew recalled. But in 1956 a new building for eight grades was built, and the school was staffed by School Sisters of Notre Dame from St. Louis, she said.
Fifteen years later, the school closed because of declining enrollment, increasing expenses and other factors.
St. Anthony Church had a different problem: more members than space could accommodate. So the wooden church was sold, and in 1977, a new church that could seat more than 300 people was dedicated.
Over the years, All Saints in Pershing and St. Mary’s in Pella were mission parishes of St. Anthony’s. Today the Knoxville parish of about 460 families is clustered with Sacred Heart in Melcher; Father Steve Ebel is pastor of both parishes.
St. Anthony’s membership has grown immensely from mostly Irish Catholics and farmers to parishioners of a variety of backgrounds, said Mary Wadle, who was baptized there in 1933. She recalled how parishioners used to visit outside the church long after Sunday Mass ended.
One newer ministry that has brought Knoxville Catholics together is the We Are The Church (WATCH) retreat, according to parishioner Tom Hardie. It transformed his view of the Church, helping him see that it’s not a building, but a community and way of life. Because of the retreat, he’s gotten involved in numerous ministries at St. Anthony’s with fellow parishioners.
“These folks are very generous,” he said. “They’re all good people.”