In the late 1880’s Nashville Diocese Bishop Joseph Rademacher decided there was a need for a parish on Nashville’s south side. It would be the fourth parish in Nashville to serve a total of 8,000 Catholics. In those times, many Catholic parishes served ethnic groups who tended to live together in close-knit communities (it was not until 1924 that geographic boundaries were set for parishes). In the 1880’s the south side of Nash- ville was predominantly Irish. For this reason, Bishop Rademacher felt the new parish should be called St. Patrick in honor of the patron saint of Ireland.
Original parish records show that 440 individuals, families and companies pledged $12,045 towards con- struction of the new parish buildings – the church, rectory and school. Of this pledge amount, $10,135 was collected almost immediately allowing the building to commence. The pledges were in amounts of as little . 50 cents or $1.00. A few wealthy individuals pledged $100 and several companies donated amounts between $200 to the highest pledge of $500. Although the reason for the donation is unknown, Boston’s John L. Sullivan, then the reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world, gave $25 towards construc- tion of the new church.
The cornerstone was laid on July 13, 1890 and construction completed in less than seven months. The church was dedicated with a Mass on February 8, 1891. Despite the amounts pledged towards construc- tion, parish debt remained at $10,500 which, at the time, was considered a substantial sum. In an effort to reduce this parish debt, St. Patrick’s utilized something that was a common practice for the time – pew rent. Church records show that in 1894 St. Patrick noted $902 in pew rent.
The church architectural design is known as Second Empire Style. It remains one of the few buildings in the Nashville area reflecting this style. The original Vanderbilt University gym (now the Fine Arts Building located at 23rd Street and West End) is the only other surviving building of this style. As would have been necessary for the times, the church was lit by gaslight and heated by coal stoves. The floor of the church was built with a slight downward slope to allow better viewing of the altar – a design feature found in few other churches in Tennessee of this era.
A school comprised of grades 1 through 8 was part of the parish from its outset. This grade school was loca- ted on the second floor above the church. The school was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy of St. Bernard Convent. Due to the space available, the grade school was never large in number of students. The school closed in 1954 as several adjacent parishes opened newer more modern facilities.
Any history of St. Patrick must include comment about its first pastor. Reverend Timothy Abbott was or- dained in 1879 and assigned to mission and pastor duties in Jackson, TN. Reverend Abbott was tasked to open St. Patrick parish in 1889 and remained its pastor until his death in 1932. This 43 year leadership and dedication to St. Patrick church, school and the surrounding community is indeed remarkable.
Time took its toll on the church buildings over the years. Maintenance efforts were undertaken in the 1930’s and in 1948 but by the 1970’s there was were concerns whether the physical structure could continue in use. Fortunately, through the use of volunteers, professionals, donated and purchased items a full restoration of the church was accomplished in 1978 under the vision of Reverend Frank Richards. The interior walls of the church were sanded, patched and repainted. The floors were sanded and varnished. The pews which had been painted white were stripped of their paint and returned to their natural finish. The stained glass win- dows adorning the church were cleaned and protected from weather. Rotted windows were replaced. The baptismal font which had been donated in 1911 was moved to the rear of the church. One church facet – the wrought iron fence at the front of the church grounds – was not made part of the restoration efforts and remains as it was at the time the church first opened.
One unique aspect of the parish is its connection to the “Irish Travelers.” This is a group of Irish immigrants of the mid-1800’s who have not assimilated into the American population as other ethnic groups have done over the years. Instead, this group remains clannish who live an itinerant lifestyle. Over the years, various families comprising the Irish Travelers would appear in the Nashville area to hold a common funeral for those who had died since the last gathering. Weddings and baptisms were performed as the gathering was equated to a family reunion. Times have changed and the Irish Travelers no longer roam the countryside by wagon but they will return at times to St. Patrick and renew their connection to the parish. The Irish Travel- ers have shown their appreciation for St. Patrick by donation of the Infant of Prague statue found in the church vestibule and the statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
St. Patrick’s Parish has enjoyed good times and survived bad times. It has been through depressions, wars, population shifts, cultural changes and the transition of the surrounding community. It has survived declines in its congregation and the surrounding neighborhood. Throughout this all, St. Patrick Church has remained a constant – a place of faith and worship for the Catholic community.
We thank all those connected to the St. Patrick community and its rich history for their contributions over these past 120 years. It has well earned its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Although pastors, nuns, students and parishioners have changed over the years, they have kept the Catholic faith alive for 120 years at St. Patrick Parish. We honor our past, look forward to our future, and prayerfully ask for the continued faith and financial means to continue our mission.