Sr. Venard Niehaus, OSF

This history of the church appeared in Treasured Recipes, a fund-raising cookbook published circa 1989.

Catholic Beginnings

When West Tennessee was being settled in the early nineteenth century, few Roman Catholics could be found in the area. Most of the emigrants who came from the East coast were English and Scottish in origin and strongly Protestant. Among the few exceptions was the family of Henry Barry, who had settled near Bolivar after migrating from Bardstown, Kentucky. He had heard that there were teachers in Tennessee (1).

Mr. Barry’s son, Valentine Darry Barry, became a circuit court judge and was the most influential Catholic in the district. In 1832, he visited Bishop Kenrick in Philadelphia, requesting that a priest be sent to West Tennessee. This did not happen, however, until seven years later.

In 1839, a group of Catholics from Memphis visited Bishop Miles of Nashville, and again requested a priest to serve the area. Bishop Miles sent Father Joseph Stokes, a priest of Irish descent.
Father Stokes, traveling on horseback, went to Ashport in Lauderdale County where he spent a week. He was the first English speaking Catholic priest to preach the Word of God in West Tennessee (2). From Ashport, Father Stokes went on to Memphis, where he was received with great joy by the Catholic people. He offered Mass in the log cabin academy owned by Eugene Mageveny.

Bishop Miles made the first episcopal visitation in 1840. The Catholic Almanac of 1840, states that Memphis and Jackson were stations – probably missionary headquarters – but that services were also held in Ashport, Bolivar, and LaGrange by Father William Clancy. Father Clancy was succeeded by Father Michael McAleer, who built the first church in Memphis, St. Peters (3).

Lexington, Tennessee

Four grave markers singularly designed with crosses, memorialize the only known Catholic family in the early history of Lexington. The oldest is that of Daniel Barry, M.D., who practiced medicine in West Tennessee until his death in 1891. He and his wife, Eliza J. Moore Barry, had eight children. Eliza Jane Barry died in 1876 at the age of 46.

Doctor Barry’s second son, William V. Barry, was the first editor and publisher of the Lexington Progress beginning in 1884. Goodspeed’s History of Henderson County describes him as follows: “He is an earnest Catholic Democrat. He is a pleasant courteous gentleman and very popular” (4).

In 1883, William married Mollie A. (Mary Ann) Dennison. Three children were born to them, Charles L., Henry D., and Catherine Marie (5). These were the people who kept alive the Catholic tradition in Lexington. Technically, they belonged to the Sacred Heart Parish in Humbolt; however, a Catholic priest occasionally stopped in their home and held services for them. When Mary Ann died in 1945, and again at the time of William Barry’s death in 1948, a funeral Mass in the home and graveside services were held by a Catholic priest (6).

Because of his Catholic heritage and because of a deep sense of justice for an oppressed faith, William L. “Dick” Barry (son of Henry D. Barry) who declares himself “not a religious man,” has shown personal interest in the construction of a Roman Catholic Church in Lexington.

In the sixties, Catholics began moving to Lexington, due largely to the transfer of factories from the North. Century Electric Co. had sent scouts to determine whether Catholics would be accepted in a territory so dominantly Protestant. They returned with favorable reports. In 1965, Jack Barni came to Lexington in charge of Industrial Engineering. In that same year, Ken Lanter arrived as plant manager. His wife, Virginia, and family followed in August 1966. They attended Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s in Jackson, thirty miles distant and sent their children to religious education classes there.

Six weeks after Mr. Lanter’s family moved to Lexington, he was stricken with a heart attack and died, leaving Virginia and three children. Four years later, Virginia and Cliff Bullock, a close friend of the family, were married. Through the invitation and encouragement of Bishop Dozier, Cliff joined the Catholic Church on Easter Sunday 1975, and has been an active, valued member from the beginning.

In 1967, Lynn Richardson, a Roman Catholic, moved to Lexington, the native city of his wife, Madge. When Lynn died in June 1980, Fr. Albert Kirk held a sunrise service at his graveside in Union Baptist Church Cemetery. Madge and her sons, Eric and Roger joined the Church in 1984.

In the decade of the 70’s, came Robert and Dorothy Clark, John and Bea Lodes, Jack and Alma Barni, Ted and Jeanette Thiele, all from Missouri; Vick and Helen Buckholtz from New York joined the small group in 1972, as did Lucien Cravens and family from Memphis, also Eileen and Garry Dryer and Valerie and Jerry Grabosky.

In 1973, the Catholic parish grew with the arrival of Joe and Judy Wall from Jackson, LaWanda and James Blowers from Missouri and Mark and Kay Bartel from Iowa. Since these were people who had been active in well established parishes, they were understandably distressed at the absence of a local Catholic Church.

Their predicament was the topic of conversation at the afternoon cookout in the spring of 1974, that resulted in action. LaWanda Blowers and Kay Bartel composed a letter to Bishop Carrol Dozier of Memphis. The Bishop, who had just reflected on the needs of this rural section of his diocese, found Mrs. Blowers’ letter on his desk. The coincidence convinced him that the Holy Spirit was directing him. He promptly arranged an appointment with the Blowers and Bartel families for the following Saturday.

History was made as Mark and Kay Bartel, with sons, Chris and Craig, and James and LaWanda Blowers met with Bishop Dozier on that Saturday in Memphis. During the summer of 1974, four seminarians came to conduct religious education classes in Lexington. On September 14, 1974, the Bishop celebrated Mass in Lexington at the Methodist Church followed by a pot-luck supper. At that time, he appointed Mark Bartel “Bishop of Lexington”.

The first steering committee for a parish council met on October 16, 1974, at the home of the Bartels. They agreed upon two main items:

  1. Religious education for the children
  2. Sunday Mass in Lexington

A committee was appointed to investigate how these items might be realized. The minutes were signed by Mark Bartel, Ted Thiele, LaWanda Blowers, and Mary Brilley.

In the meantime, Bishop Dozier had asked the Adrian Dominicans to finance four Sisters to work in the rural area of the Memphis Diocese. When the Sisters arrived in 1977, Cliff and Virginia Bullock offered their home at Pine Lake as a temporary residence. Sister Angela Suzalla, O.P. served the Lexington parish as the pastoral associate.

Sister Angela suggested that the best way for an outsider to assess the family atmosphere of the congregation is to attend a regular Sunday morning liturgy and observe what takes place after Mass. “People don’t hurry away. They stay and socialize.”

Bishop Dozier blessed the new store-front church on September 19, 1981, and named it the Church of St. Andrew the Apostle. His comments in Common Sense: “The Catholics in Lexington have been meeting in the Methodist Church through the kindness of their minister and congregation, but now they have a store-front church. They have panelled the area for liturgy and made a beautiful altar. It was a pleasant surprise to see how tastefully it had been transformed from a store into a place of worship.”

Early in 1982, some of the church members organized an Altar Guild. This group, which met monthly, sponsored the first bazaar held November 6,1982.

Sister Angela terminated her service at St. Andrew’s in 1982. During her five years as Pastoral Associate, she had endeared herself to Protestants, as well as Catholics.

On August 25, 1982, Sister Clara Stang, a Franciscan Sister from Little Falls, Minnesota, arrived to make St. Andrew’s her new home. Father Al Kirk along with the Parish Council had interviewed her in March and hired her for the part-time position of Pastoral Associate of St. Andrew’s. Bishop Dozier appointed her to another part-time Diocesan position, Diocesan Coordinator of Rural Ministries for the Memphis Diocese. In this position, she would work with the Catholic churches and missions in the twenty counties outside of Shelby in West Tennessee.

The First United Methodist Church in Lexington, in a spirit of true Christian hospitality, hosted the little congregation for Sunday Mass, which was initially celebrated by Fr. Bill Stelling from St. Mary’s in Jackson.

As the parish grew, so did its needs, and now discussion focused on a parish center. In July 1981, they decided to rent a store-front at 39 East Church Street at the cost of $225.00 a month. The building had at various times, housed a theater, several kinds of stores, and most recently a Salvation Army Headquarters. The parish truly experienced the Church as the “Mystical Body of Christ”. Each one contributed according to his/her expertise. After much scrubbing, varnishing, rewiring, plumbing, and carpenter work, the building was readied for worship. The first Mass was celebrated by Father Richard Gantert on August 14, 1981.

The close family spirit displayed when the parishioners first met and grew during the pioneer period of challenge, has been very consciously developed and retained over the years. An article in Common Sense says, “It is a store-front, but it has a lot of closeness and love and family atmosphere, which is developed through people worshipping together.” The spirit is well expressed in a poem by one of the parish members.

We are the Catholic Church as such
Our beginnings simple, with a common touch.
No stained glass or inspiring steeple
Just a few faithful people.
Our place of worship on loan,
Though adequate, not a place of our own.
A saint named Andrew summoned to assist.

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