By Gary Flanagan
It all started simply enough in 1820. The first Catholic church in Tennessee was built by Irish Catholic workers constructing a bridge over the Cumberland river. In 1830, a brick structure known as Holy Rosary Cathedral replaced the original frame building on what is now Capitol Hill in Nashville.The cornerstone of the Tennessee State Capitol was placed close by on July 4th, 1845.
As the new Capitol was being built, so was a new Cathedral at the bottom of the hill. St. Mary’s Cathedral replaced Holy Rosary Cathedral which then became St. John’s Hospital and Orphanage in 1847. The site was then sold to the state in 1857 as the Capitol building was near completion. A small historical marker on the northeast pathway around the Capitol is the only reminder of the original Holy Rosary church.
Today, St.Mary’s of the Seven Sorrows http://stmarysdowntown.org and the Tennessee State Capitol stand a stone’s throw and city block away from each other. Chronologically and visually similar, history is literally buried into these distinct buildings. The architect and designer,the first Catholic Bishop of Tennessee, and the 11th President of the United States and his wife are all entombed on the grounds of these structures.
Buried at the Tennessee State Capitol, is William Strickland. He was the architect of the Capitol and designer of St. Mary’s Cathedral, as well as Downtown Presbyterian church a few blocks away. He died during the construction of the Capitol five years before its completion. His son finished the project and adhered to his father’s wishes and buried him in the concrete. Stickland modeled the Capitol after a Greek Ionic temple. The lantern atop is a copy of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, Greece. St. Mary’s of the Seven Sorrows features a similar Greek Ionic temple supporting the belfry.
The 11th United States President James K. Polk and his wife Sarah are also buried on the east facing side of the Capitol. President Polk was nominated by his party to run for President on the eighth vote in 1844. He was not seeking the Presidency, but felt he should not pass on the attempt if others felt him to be qualified.
He was elected with 50% of the popular vote despite being the only President to not win electoral votes from his state of birth, North Carolina, or his state of residence, Tennessee. He served one term as per his campaign promise, and accomplished all items on his agenda during those four years. He died only 3 months out of office after contracting Cholera.
Bishop Richard Pius Miles was appointed Bishop of Nashville in July 1837, consecrated in Bardstown, Kentucky September 1838, and arrived in Nashville during Christmas season of the same year. He renovated the worn down Cathedral of the Holy Rosary before selling to the state in 1947, and planned for building the new Cathedral at the bottom of the hill. He then saved the materials from Holy Rosary and used them to build another church for Nashville’s German catholics.
When he arrived in Nashville there were 300 Catholics in the entire state, and no clergy or structures to support them. By the time of his death in 1860 there were 12,000 Catholics, 14 churches, 9 schools and an orphanage. Bishop Miles was buried beneath the altar of St. Mary’s. During a renovation of the church in 1972, Bishop Miles body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt after 112 years. He was reinterred in a tomb with a chapel in the rear section of St. Mary’s.
On your next visit to Nashville, bypass the many entertainment attractions and take a stroll over to Capitol hill. You may find some history buried in the separation of church and state. A bit of Tennessee treasure to take home with you.