Knoxville’s New Cathedral Is a Church for the Ages

As the diocese turns 30, it dedicates a beautiful edifice.

Above, the cathedral dome rises 144 feet into the air. Inside it are murals of the Sacred Heart flanked by Mary and St. Joseph, along with several other saints, ancient and modern. Below, the dedication Mass is underway.
Above, the cathedral dome rises 144 feet into the air. Inside it are murals of the Sacred Heart flanked by Mary and St. Joseph, along with several other saints, ancient and modern. Below, the dedication Mass is underway. (photo: Courtesy of the Diocese of Knoxville)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Diocese of Knoxville — 300,000 bricks, 400 tons of steel, 41 miles of lumber, 34 months, and one dedication Mass later — has a new cathedral. The culmination of years of planning, the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was dedicated by Bishop Richard Stika March 3, before a crowd of more than 1,000 faithful.

Jane Wicker, a parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade, Tennessee, told the Register that “going into the cathedral for the first time almost takes your breath away.” Because of the overwhelming beauty, she said, “you know you’re in a holy place. You know you’re in the presence of God.”

Beneath the deep-blue coffered ceilings of the cathedral, lines from the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are inscribed along the walls. Rising over the main altar is a white baldacchino with gold drapes.

Further into the church, the cathedral dome rises 144 feet into the air. Inside it are murals of the Sacred Heart flanked by Mary and St. Joseph, along with several other saints, ancient and modern. The four corners of the dome are decorated with each of the Evangelists.

“Isn’t it amazing,” said Bishop Stika during his homily, “what can be done with generous offerings, a few buckets of paint, slabs of marble and months of work? In a few moments — depending on how long I preach — this building will be a cathedral, because we dedicate this sacred space.”

A Growing Church

In 1988, Pope St. John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville from the eastern counties of the Diocese of Nashville. At the time, the diocese had around 30,000 Catholics. Sacred Heart, which became the mother church of the diocese, could comfortably fit 500 people.

Nearly 30 years later, the Knoxville Diocese has seen the same rapid expansion in membership as other dioceses in the Southern United States. More than 60,000 people are registered in parishes, and the number of Catholics may be closer to 100,000. At Sacred Heart Cathedral, with more than 1,500 families, Masses were overflowing, and parishioners were eager for a new cathedral.

Bishop Stika, who was installed in 2009, told the Register that building a cathedral had long been discussed, but the conversations finally began to move into action beginning in 2013.

In a process that involved more than 1,000 people giving input at different levels, he said, the cathedral has evolved from blueprints to a 28,000-square-foot church.

The diocese broke ground in 2015, using McCrery Architects of Washington, D.C., and BarberMcMurry Architects of Knoxville.

Father David Boettner, the pastor of Sacred Heart and vicar general of the diocese, told the Register there were three principles guiding the design of the cathedral.

“It needed to be timeless, it needed to be transcendent, and it needed to be beautiful,” he said. 

“We knew we had hit the mark when we saw people’s jaws drop open, and they just stood there for a while, taking in the beauty of the space,” he added.

For Father Boettner, the beauty suffusing the cathedral is an important evangelical tool because of its power “to speak to people in a way that words sometimes just fail.”

But conversations are important, too. Bishop Stika said that the construction of the cathedral had provided an opportunity for Catholics to share about their church and hopes that everyone in the community will find it “a place of holiness and prayer.”

“With all the problems that exist in society today, I think people need a place where they can come and recollect themselves in a prayerful place, where their spirits can be uplifted,” he said.

The cathedral will be open all day and late into the evening, to welcome as many people as possible, and a separate chapel on the cathedral grounds will offer 24-hour adoration.

The cathedral will host concerts by local groups like the Knoxville Handel Society and also showcase different parish choirs in the diocese. Father Boettner said the diocese had purposefully emphasized the cathedral “as a gathering place for the civic community, as well as the center of worship.”

It’s an outreach that has been returned by Knoxville residents, he said, who recognize the new cathedral “as something beautiful for the whole community.”

Possibly no group is more pleased than the parishioners of the cathedral. The total cost for the cathedral was $30.8 million. While the other parishes in the diocese committed to raising $4 million collectively, the Sacred Heart community decided to raise $10 million.

“The fundraisers that worked with us thought we were crazy,” Father Boettner said, for deciding on such a large amount to fundraise. But they succeeded: The parish raised more than six times its annual offertory during the campaign, he said.

“Many parishioners made huge sacrifices,” he said, “and I think they’re thrilled with the result.”


Local and Universal Church

On his visits to Knoxville, Mike St. Charles of St. Augustine’s in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, looked at the silhouette of the rising cathedral and wondered if it would be “too imposing” when it was finished. When he finally entered, his concerns disappeared. It is “warm and inviting,” he said. More importantly, “it’s a great place to think about our true purpose, which is to grow closer to God.”

For Jane Wicker and her husband, Rollie, the cathedral-dedication Mass, with people attending from every part of the diocese and beyond, was a visible symbol of the breadth of Catholicism. “It just makes you feel part of a bigger Church, rather than just your little church,” Jane Wicker said.

But the cathedral is also a testament to what the faith of their diocese can achieve and what it can hand on to future generations.

“It’s a beautiful building,” Rollie Wicker said. “In our lifetime, we’ll never be part of that again.”

“We’ll be gone, and people will say, ‘Those people really came through for us.’”

Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.

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