‘Pious Legend’ or Pastor of Souls: Tenn. Diocese to Exhume Potential Saint's Body
Father Patrick Ryan gave up his life rather than abandon the flock during a 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic in Chattanooga.
Knoxville, Tennessee — The Diocese of Knoxville is seeking to unearth the remains of a Tennessee pastor whose canonization cause is currently open.
Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan was a diocesan priest who cared for the sick in Chattanooga, Tennessee, passing away at 33 years old from yellow fever.
The diocese is seeking permission to transfer the priest’s remains from Mt. Olivet Cemetery to the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
A petition was filed earlier this month to ask a judge for permission to exhume the remains.
Nell Southerland, assistant attorney for Hamilton County, said the request will likely go unopposed; but he is unsure if Tennessee law gives judges the power to allow for exhumation without the permission of a known relative, the Times Free Press reported.
The diocese must confirm that Ryan was a real person, and not a “pious legend,” which is why the body is exhumed as part of the canonization process. However, there is other strong evidence pointing to the priest’s existence, like letters between clergymen and newspaper clippings from the time.
In the 1800s, the Ryan family immigrated to New York from County Tipperary, Ireland, where the surname Ryan is popular. According to the Times Free Press, this made it difficult to determine which Patrick Ryan was the priest, noting there are 25 identical names recorded.
Ryan studied the priesthood at St. Vincent’s College in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. In 1869, he was ordained in Nashville. Later, he was sent to Chattanooga, where he opened the town’s oldest private school.
Having passed away in 1878, the priest was originally buried among his flock per his request. In 1886, he was transferred to Olivet Cemetery during a horse and buggy procession.
Father David Carter, Knoxville canon lawyer and pastor of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, said Ryan had offered his life to heroically serve people suffering from the yellow fever epidemic during the 19th century.
“Patrick Ryan was the pastor of the Catholic church here, and when the yellow fever came to town, instead of fleeing, he heroically administered to the people knowing its dangers,” he said, according to the Times Free Press.
At the U.S. bishops’ General Assembly in Baltimore in 2016, Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville highlighted the Servant of God’s work.
“Even though it happened many years ago, Father Ryan’s work administering to the sick exemplifies charity and selflessness and remind us of how we should serve others.”