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St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Church has witnessed Civil War and deep faith.
BY Catherine Spears
St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Church in Nashville, Tenn., is the oldest-standing church of any denomination in Nashville. The Nashville Diocese was established in 1837 by Pope Gregory XVI and covered the entire state of Tennessee. St. Mary’s was dedicated in 1847.
The Diocese of Nashville’s first bishop, Richard Pius Miles, arrived in Nashville during the Christmas season of 1838. Bishop Miles built the diocese from the ground up and oversaw the establishment of St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows as the first cathedral. At that time, it was called the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin of the Seven. The new cathedral was considered an architectural marvel due to its lack of internal columns.
St. Mary’s has been a part of Nashville’s rich history through the years. At one time, it was home to Samuel Stritch, who later became the cardinal of Chicago. Cardinal Stritch donated several paintings to St. Mary’s, including a copy of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Fruit and a rare copy of Mater Admirabilis, known as the "Pink Madonna."
Nashville’s oldest church was declared a neutral zone during the Civil War and served as a hospital for wounded Confederate and Union soldiers. A Catholic priest who was serving as a chaplain for the Confederate Army was shot and taken to St. Mary’s, where he later died, along with more than 300 soldiers during the war.
Through the years, St. Mary’s was renovated to have electric lights, new stained-glass windows, a high altar made from imported Italian marble and side altars with statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother.
St. Mary’s remained the cathedral of Nashville until 1914, when the Cathedral of the Incarnation was built.
In 1937, to mark the centennial of the Diocese of Nashville, a carved wood statue of the Sorrowful Mother was donated; it still stands in St. Mary’s.
The body of Bishop Miles, which rested under the altar of the church, was perfectly preserved when exhumed after 109 years. The body was moved to a side chapel in the church, where the bishop’s body still rests today.
St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows has served as the home parish for thousands of families over the years, and though it is now one of the smaller churches in Nashville, it serves many businessmen and women who work in downtown Nashville for daily Mass (at noon on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; Sunday Mass is offered at 9am).
This August marked the retirement of Father James Norman Miller, who has been pastor of St. Mary’s since 1981. Father Miller is a Nashville native whose love for St. Mary’s Church began before he was born. His father proposed to his mother in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother in the church, and his parents were married here. Father Miller has said, "My blood is in the bricks and mortar of this church." The new pastor is Father John Sims Baker. He was assigned to various Nashville parishes before his post as Catholic chaplain at Vanderbilt University in 2006, a position which he still serves.
On July 28, St. Mary’s was temporarily the home to the bishop again, as current Bishop David Choby and Catholics from across Tennessee gathered to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of Nashville. The Mass marked the start of a year-long anniversary celebration.
St. Mary’s was recently renovated to update duct work and air conditioning, as well as to stabilize and protect the historic building. All cosmetic renovations served to repair the original beauty of the church. The church still echoes the history and beauty of the original building built by Bishop Miles. St. Mary’s is a quiet escape among the bustle of downtown Nashville, and visitors enjoy taking in the beauty of the hand-painted ceiling murals, which were painted in 1847 in Italy.
The side walls of the Church are lined with gorgeous Stations of the Cross, all hand painted on tin in Czechoslovakia in 1845, and seven small stations nestled between the Stations of the Cross mark the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady — the seven times her heart was broken due to Christ’s passion.
Visitors will be blessed to take in the story that St. Mary’s historic walls — the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 — have witnessed over the years.
I’d highly recommend a visit to Nashville, and, while you are here, make sure to stop in and visit this rich piece of Catholic history. There is so much history to learn here — visitors can find out about Nashville history just from visiting St. Mary’s.
Catherine Spears writes from Nashville, Tennessee.
Planning Your Visit
St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Catholic Church
330 5th Avenue N.
Nashville, TN 37219
St. Mary’s is centrally located in downtown Nashville near the Capitol, tourist attractions and more.