We’re all familiar with that famous photograph. It is on display here today. There is another copy downstairs in the parish hall, with a chart that attempts to identify many of those in the picture. It appears in books about the city of Knoxville and the history of the Church in Tennessee. There is even one hanging in the Chop House restaurant in Fountain City.
The photo was taken on September 26, 1886, one week after the dedication of this church. The pastor, Fr. Francis T. Marron, and a group of parishioners – very serious-looking as 19th-century people always were when they posed for a picture – stood, facing Walnut Street, in front of the original Immaculate Conception Church, soon to be torn down so that the apse and altar area of the new church could be completed.
Three years ago, inspired by that old photo, we gathered as many of us as we could in front of the present parish church, facing Vine Avenue, for another picture. There are more people in the second picture, and they look less formal. They’re even smiling! But, for all the superficial differences, both pictures complement each other very nicely.
Both photos express the essential dimension of our parish’s life. We are a diverse community who together embody the Church on this particular site in downtown Knoxville. We come from various backgrounds and go about our daily lives in differing professions and other activities. But we all come together here in our church, to which we bring our joys and hopes, our experiences and our challenges, where we hear God’s saving and redeeming word and are nourished from his altar by his sacraments - so as to be sent forth from this church refreshed, fulfilled, and empowered to continue Christ’s life and work in the world through the mission of the Church here in this city.
Saint John Paul II once called the parish “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.” Elaborating further on this theme, Pope Francis has called the parish “the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration … It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach” [Evangelii Gaudium, 28].
Can it indeed be, asked Solomon when the Temple was being dedicated in Jerusalem, Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? [1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30]. Certainly, Solomon’s wonder and amazement must have found an echo in the heart of the tax-collector Zacchaeus, when Jesus looked up and said m, Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at our house.” And what did Zacchaeus do? He came down quickly and received Jesus with joy.
My guess is that the reason this Gospel passage [Luke 19:1-10] was proclaimed for so many centuries at the Mass of the Dedication of a Church was because of Jesus’ wonderful words near the end: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus certainly needed salvation. Certainly he needed something. Otherwise why would he have been willing to risk ridicule by running ahead and climbing a tree. (If you go to Jericho today, they’ll show you the tree.) Certainly Zacchaeus needed something. Otherwise why would he have been willing to risk the grumbling of his somewhat self-righteous neighbors, who just didn’t quite get it, who just didn’t quite get what Jesus was all about, what Jesus is all about, and what his Church therefore is all about.
Zacchaeus received Jesus with joy. A church is a place set apart for that to happen, over and over again. A parish is a community, centered on a church, that exists to help that happen, over and over again.
This is what Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Knoxville (“The Church on Summit Hill”) has consistently been all about ever since those very first families founded the parish and opened the first Catholic Church in Knoxville on this site 160 years ago, in the fall of 1855.
When we celebrate a church, we first of all celebrate a place, a very special and sacred place set apart unlike any other. We also celebrate the people the place represents. That is why the anniversary of a church’s dedication is celebrated liturgically as a feast for all those whose church it is.
It is no accident that one and the same name, “Church,” is used for both the people who continue Christ’s presence in the world and the place where they assemble to experience his presence most directly, by proclaiming his word and celebrating his sacraments.
But, when we celebrate this our mother church of East Tennessee, we also celebrate the relationship that binds us all together over time and space.
And so, in gratitude for these past 160 years of fruitful parish life and ministry on this hill and in downtown Knoxville, we remember those who have gone before us, who lived lives filled with faith, hope, and love, and now rest in the peace of Christ. And we especially welcome to our church this Sunday all former Immaculate Conception parishioners and all descendants of the founding families of parishioners who are attending this special “Parish Homecoming Mass” today. Brought together as one parish community from many places and backgrounds, we pray that we may continue to share the blessings of our Catholic faith and life with all who live or work or visit within sight of this church, within the sound of its bells, and within the reach of its members.
Homily for the Parish "Homecoming Mass" in Celebration of the 160th Anniversary of Immaculate Conception Parish, Knoxville, TN, and the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Present Church (1886), September 20, 2015.