Father Patrick Ryan’s Cause for Canonization Moves Forward — With a New Docudrama

Following a May 6 screening in Knoxville, Tennessee, ‘Father Ryan: A Higher Call’ will be available for showing around the country.

Still from ‘Father Ryan: A Higher Call’
Still from ‘Father Ryan: A Higher Call’ (photo: Crunch Entertainment)

Sometimes things come together so well, you just know that God had a hand in it. That was the case when two Hollywood filmmakers relocated to Chattanooga — just in time to undertake a film project.

Marc Aramian, a film and music producer, and his wife, writer/director Veronica DiPippo, had enjoyed successful careers in Hollywood, but when the pandemic forced some businesses to curtail their activities, they reconsidered their options. Veronica hoped to land a job that promised a steady paycheck, instead of the feast or famine of Hollywood filmmaking. In 2021, the couple took their indie film company Crunch Entertainment and crossed the country to settle in Chattanooga, to be closer to two of Marc’s grown children.

Marc was a recent convert to Catholicism, and together, the couple sought a church home in their new city, finding their way to Chattanooga’s Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. Neither Marc nor Veronica knew much of the parish’s history, except that its former pastor, Father Patrick Ryan, was entombed at the front of the basilica. But happy to help at the parish in any way they could, they invited the current pastor, Father David Carter, out to lunch. Father Carter told them the story of the former pastor of the parish, Father Patrick Ryan, who had died while serving the community during the Chattanooga yellow fever epidemic. Father Ryan has been named a Servant of God, and his cause for canonization is moving forward. As Marc and Veronica told Father Carter their story and offered their help, he was visibly touched.

“This is the hand of God!” he said. “Yesterday I was praying, how am I going to spread Father Ryan’s story far and wide? We need a film!”

Marc and Veronica accepted the challenge and created a documentary, Father Ryan: A Higher Call. Although the diocese contributed financially, the budget was limited. The duo invited their fellow parishioners to become involved — and they did, serving as actors and camera crew and grips, sewing the turn-of-the-century garments needed by the cast. One friend offered the use of a historic home to serve as the setting for interior scenes. Veronica narrated the film; Marc composed the score; their pastor, Father Carter, described the canonization process and offered insights into the priestly vocation. One parishioner, a physician with a background in infectious disease research, explained the symptoms of the yellow fever which claimed Father Ryan’s life. For the production, Marc recalled that they had hired only two people: a professional cinematographer for the interior shots, and a cosmetologist. In addition, a graphic artist produced the opening mosaics and the film’s poster. “The rest of it,” Marc said, “was really a labor of love.”

In particular, Marc recalled how he sat during Mass, watching people as they returned from Communion, finally spotting a parishioner who bore a resemblance to Father Ryan. After Mass, Mark asked that parishioner whether he’d like to become involved in their project, and Jack Pettigrew stepped into the role of Father Ryan.

“He worked really hard at it,” Marc said, “for multiple days of work.”

The Register talked with the talented husband-and-wife team about how their background prepared them for the challenge of creating this new film, and why the time was right to tell Father Ryan’s story. Marc explained that they had known nothing of Father Patrick Ryan before moving to Chattanooga, but with the global pandemic closing businesses and keeping people at home, the time seemed ideal to tell his story. They saw a parallel between the spread of COVID in 2020 and the yellow fever epidemic of the 1870s. 


What Was the Yellow Fever?

Citizens of Tennessee had many health crises to fear in the 1800s: smallpox, cholera, dysentery and, most significantly, yellow fever. When mosquitoes brought yellow fever to western Tennessee in 1873, the disease — characterized by fevers, chills, hemorrhaging, vomiting, severe pains and yellowing of the skin and eyes — claimed more than 2,000 lives in Memphis alone. And when the fever spread to a swampy slum district of Chattanooga, more than 12,000 residents fled the city’s limits to seek safety in the hills. Left behind were those who could not flee — the needy, the elderly and the infirm. 

With so many of Chattanooga’s remaining population bedridden with yellow fever, Father Patrick Ryan, a young Irish American priest, stepped in to help. 


Who Was Father Patrick Ryan?

Father Ryan was a young priest in the Diocese of Knoxville in 1878, when the yellow fever epidemic raged through the community. Several priests had been among the victims. Father Ryan, then pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, knew that priests were needed to take the sacraments to the sick, so he volunteered to serve in the hardest-hit region. 

“We’re told that there’s no greater gift than to give your life for another person,” said Marc. “I think every person hopes they’ll live up to that.” Father Ryan did, understanding that his close contact with patients suffering from the dreaded disease made it likely that he would succumb.

According to an eyewitness, Father Ryan went “from house to house in the worst-infected section of the city to see what he could do for the sick and needy.” He himself contracted the disease after being exposed to so many suffering patients, but he continued to minister to his flock, making home visits up to a few days before his death. He was stricken on Sept. 26, 1878, and died just two days later.


Documentary Premieres at the School That Father Ryan Founded

Father Ryan: A Higher Call has launched on the festival circuit, premiering April 15 at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, the school that Father Ryan was instrumental in founding. At 3:30pm on Saturday, May 6, it will be shown in Knoxville, in the St. Gregory the Great Auditorium on the campus of Knoxville Catholic High School. The Knoxville screening is free and open to the public.

Following the Knoxville screening, the film will be available for showing at various locales around the country, including a number of film festivals. In May, the docudrama will be screened at the International Christian Film and Music Festival in Orlando, where it’s been nominated for Best Documentary and for Best Director.

For more information about the film and Father Patrick Ryan’s Cause for Sainthood visit www.frpatrickryan.com. To inquire about hosting a screening in your parish or community, contact Deacon Gasper DeGaetano, Vice Postulator for the Cause of the Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan, at [email protected].