I’ve been meaning to go into the history of the faith in this region, and I still might at some point, but for this particular post I want to jump into the middle things. Catholicism has never been big in East Tennessee. The region’s European settlers were Protestant, and it took a long time for industry to attract Catholic immigrants. But by the late nineteenth century, there were pockets of Catholicism in the more urban areas, along train routes, and further north in mining country.
Chattanooga, with its river and railways, was a boom town of trade. In 1852, the local Catholics founded their first parish, Sts. Peter and Paul, under the leadership of Father Henry V. Brown (a former Presbyterian). In 1872, Father Patrick J. Ryan was assigned to the parish. Father Ryan was born in County Tipperary, Ireland in 1845 and emigrated to the New York as a child. He was ordained into the Diocese of Nashville in 1869 by Bishop Feehan. The Feehan and Ryan families had been neighbors in Ireland, which is probably what prompted the priest’s move south.
Despite fire, flood, and cholera, 1870s Chattanooga was bouncing back from Reconstruction and was growing in commercial wealth. Father Ryan was eager to see a strong Catholic presence grow with the city. In 1876, he convinced the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia from Nashville to open Notre Dame de Lourdes Academy in Chattanooga (at 140, it is now the oldest private school in Chattanooga).
In September 1878 a yellow fever epidemic broke out. Within days, the disease swept through the city. An estimated 80% of the residents fled. Notre Dame was converted into a hospital and orphanage during that time. Father Ryan stayed to tend to the sick at the church and school. He also went into the neighborhoods to offer whatever relief he could, along with his friend, Jonathan Bachman, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. When Father Ryan got sick on Sept. 26, Bachman stayed with him.
A doctor telegraphed the bishop of Nashville on Sept. 27: “Father Ryan is much better and will recover, I think.” Father Ryan died on Sept. 28. He was 33. He received the last sacraments from his younger brother, newly-ordained Father Michael Ryan, who had come to the city on a short vacation. Later, the doctor claimed, “When I heard of Father's death, it astonished me more than an earthquake would have done.” Father Ryan was buried on the church grounds and then moved to the Mt. Olivet Cemetery when it opened six years later. The reburial ceremony included one of the longest corteges, or processions, seen in Chattanooga. Nearly 100 horse-drawn carriages stretched more than a mile as they made the trip from downtown, over Missionary Ridge, and to the burial site.
An editorial in the Chattanooga Times Nov. 12 1886, noted:
“The reburial of Father Patrick Ryan yesterday roused into vivid realization the terrible scene of September and October, 1878, in the retrospective vision of all who were his co-workers in that trying season. The brave and faithful priest literally laid down his life in the cause of humanity. Only the morning before he was stricken with the deadly pestilence, the writer met him on his rounds of mercy in the worst infected section of the city. Cheerfully but resolutely he was going from house to house to find what he could do for the sick and needy.
Then the work of the destroyer was upon him, but he looked the one whose spirit had conquered the flesh, like one so absorbed in of dangers of afflictions of his fellow men that he was unconscious of personal suffering, unmindful of personal evil.
We shall never, to the hour we close our eyes for the last time, forget the unselfish and efficient work of Father Ryan and his elder eminent brother, Father John. It was peculiarly meet and very touching the respect shown the dead father's remains yesterday by many of the chief survivors of that terrible fall. This was without regard to religious connections, as it should be. They were on a level then. The yellow scourge was no respecter of persons or creeds.”
This June, the Diocese of Knoxville established its Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Rev. Patrick J. Ryan. Father Ryan now carries the title Servant of God and it is acceptable for the faithful in Chattanooga and throughout the region to ask for his intercessions. Canonization is a complicated process, requiring lots of documentation. Sometimes it takes less than a decade, like with St. John Paul II (died 2005, canonized 2014). Sometimes it takes hundreds of years, like St. Hildegard of Bingen (died 1179, canonized 2012).
There is reason to believe Father Ryan’s case might go a little faster because he might be recognized as a martyr of charity. While a martyr is typically a martyr of faith, one killed for being a Catholic/Christian, a martyr of charity is one who dies as a result of administering a charitable act. They are also called confessors of the faith, like St. Aloysius Gonzaga or St. Maximillian Kolbe. It is not yet an official category in the canonization process like martyr of faith is, but it helps make the case of Father Ryan’s sincere devotion to charity.