Since its dedication in 1847, St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Catholic Church has provided a sacred space for thousands of worshipers. It served as a military hospital for dying and injured soldiers during the Civil War, and has captivated countless passers-by with its Grecian architectural charm.
The diminutive downtown Catholic church — long overshadowed by a tower wall of modernist skyscrapers along Deaderick Street — is Nashville’s oldest standing place of worship. Designed by Adolphus Heiman, its importance to the city’s history is unquestioned.
But St. Mary enters 2011 with an uncertain future. In the past five years, its membership has plummeted from about 200 parishioner entities — which can be individuals, couples or families — to a mere 40 today.
If St. Mary were a corporation, its board likely would have folded the operation by now.
Father James Norman Miller is determined to keep the lights on and the masses going. To do so, the veteran priest can expect only so much help from the building’s owner, the Diocese of Nashville.
“The diocese has been supportive and understanding but has said it’s our responsibility as a parish to remain viable,” said Miller, who will celebrate 30 years as the church’s pastor in June.
Miller is frank in his assessment of the church’s future.
“With the emergence of suburban parishes, people — particularly if they work downtown — are reluctant to come back downtown on the weekend,” the veteran priest said.
Because many St. Mary worshipers are young downtown dwellers on tight budgets, homeless folks or travelers with no direct ties to the church, significant monetary donations are uncommon, Miller said. The result is a budget as tiny as the little place of worship itself.
“We are finding it very difficult to meet our financial obligations, especially in this recession,” Miller said.
As for what options might come next if St. Mary’s membership situation has not improved by the end of 2011, Miller was unwavering in spirit but short on details. “We’re going to do everything possible to make the church viable,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take, but we’re going to be there.”