New parish outside Nashville welcomes growth of community, plans for new Catholic schools
Father Anthony Stewart was appointed pastor of Mother Teresa Catholic Church in June 2021. | Courtesy of Mother Teresa Catholic Church.
A woman kneels for confession outside the home on the property where Mother Teresa Catholic Church will be built. The home is divided into a private residence for the pastor and other spaces for public use. | Courtesy of Mother Teresa Catholic Church.
Father Anthony converted part of house on the 166-acre property into a chapel, which is being used for daily masses, confessions, adoration, and baptisms until a church is constructed in the coming years. | Courtesy of Mother Teresa Catholic Church.
The sun sets over the future location of St. Michael's Academy and Mother Teresa Catholic Church. The Diocese of Nashville acquired the land in January of 2021. | Courtesy of Father Anthony Stewart.
Every week, more than 200 volunteers help set up for Masses at Nolensville Elementary School, the temporary location for Mother Teresa Catholic Church. | Courtesy of Mother Teresa Catholic Church.
Father Anthony Stewart greets a parishioner after Mother Teresa Catholic Church's first Sunday Mass on September 5, 2021 | Courtesy of Mother Teresa Catholic Church.
A volunteer provides coffee to parishioners after the first Sunday Mass for Mother Teresa Catholic Church in their temporary location, Nolensville Elementary School. | Courtesy of Mother Teresa Catholic Church.
Father Anthony Stewart celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at Nolensville Elementary School on Sept. 5, 2021. The school will serve as the temporary location for Sunday Mass for Mother Teresa Catholic Church until the school and church are built. | Courtesy of Mother Teresa Catholic Church.
After moving to Nolensville, Tennessee, 14 years ago, Laura Czarka began frequent drives out Nolensville Road to a greenhouse where she would buy plants every spring and fall. On each drive, she passes a hilly horse farm, where she said she had a dream to purchase one day the property for her family and her children’s families to live on.
“I knew it wasn’t realistic, it was never going to happen,” said Czarka, who moved to Nolensville with her husband 14 years ago. “But I would look up at that house, the barns, and the horses grazing out there, and I just knew it was special.”
While Czarka and her husband did not purchase the property, they are able to visit it almost every day. In January 2021, the Diocese of Nashville acquired the land. They established a parish and appointed a pastor in June. Over the next several years, the 166-acre parcel will become home to a K-8 school, a high school, and Mother Teresa Catholic Church.
“Nolensville is growing exponentially, and it’s one of the fastest growing places in Tennessee,” said Father Anthony Stewart, pastor of Mother Teresa Catholic Church. “There are Catholic Churches that surround this whole area, and, you would ask yourself, if you're looking at a map, why isn't there a church there?”
Nolensville is a charming town, Fr. Anthony said, but it is also experiencing robust growth. They are absorbing residents from historically Catholic communities such as those in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California.
“The school systems are very good, the taxes are low, and it’s just a really beautiful area,” Fr. Anthony said. “The values of faith and family in the southern part of the United States are really attractive to people. It’s a great place to raise a family.”
Mother Teresa Catholic Church is in a strategic position on the map with the growth of the area, Fr. Anthony said. The new property was purchased for $4.2 million dollars, with $3.2 million coming from two anonymous families and the remainder from the diocese.
“This is subjectively good news, that a new church is being opened,” Fr. Anthony said. “While in some places the faith is waning, in other places, it is growing. This is a testament that the faith is still alive.”
Before the parish was established, families would drive to Holy Family Catholic Church in Brentwood, about 10 miles away, where Fr. Anthony was previously the associate pastor.
“We had on our parish database that 333 families lived in Nolensville, but were driving to Holy Family because it was the closest Catholic church,” Fr. Anthony said. “It was obvious that Nolensville could sustain a Catholic church of its own.”
The parish met for their first Mass Sept. 5 at Nolensville Elementary School, which will continue to be their location for Sunday Masses until construction begins on the new property. More than 600 people attended between two Masses, and more than 200 people helped set up beforehand.
“We’re repeating history because our parent church, Holy Family, about 30 years ago, started in a high school gym,” Fr. Anthony said.
Every Sunday, volunteers roll out a gym floor covering; unload about 300 chairs from a large trailer; set up a sound system, musical equipment, and a piano; prepare the altar for Mass; and place signage around the school.
“Father [Anthony] brings a tabernacle, and a beautiful crucifix, and I'm always walking in there not feeling like it's a gym at all,” Czarka said. “It feels like a sacred space.”
The new property currently has a single 4000-square-foot home, as well as older barns and a pond. Fr. Anthony sectioned off a portion of the house as a private residence and is using the remaining space to offer the sacraments.
Daily Mass is offered Monday through Thursday, and confession and adoration take place each Wednesday.
“When we go up for daily Mass, I can't explain to you the overwhelming feeling that this is holy ground,” Czarka said. “The altar is set before a beautiful large window that overlooks the hills. There's something about being up there, and just the beauty of it, that fills you with wonder and awe.”
To hear confessions, Fr. Anthony places a kneeler outside his living room window on the sweeping front porch of the home. Because the parish does not have the normal facilities of a church, Fr. Anthony has to be really innovative, Czarka said.
Construction will begin first on the K-8 school, followed by the church and a high school. When the K-8 school opens, the celebration of the sacraments will move into the school chapel.
Catholic school enrollment in the Diocese of Nashville is up nine percent from last year to this year, according to Rebecca Hammel, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Nashville.
“The need for Catholic education is prominent there [in Nolensville],” Hammel said. “It’s become a dream that the diocese has embraced and is looking forward to as a mechanism to serve the needs of the faithful in that part of the diocese.”
The forthcoming elementary school, Saint Michael’s Academy, will be the first regional school in the diocese. Even though it will be on the same property as Mother Teresa Catholic Church, the school’s name is purposefully different, Hammel said, so that the school “has its identity as a regional school supported by five local parishes.”
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“It's a blending of those parishes where they might not be able to support a school independently,” Hammel said. “Students and parents will see the five priests from their home parish involved in the life of the school.”
The school will open with pre-k and kindergarten, and add grades each year after, so they do not impact Catholic school enrollment in nearby schools, Hammel said. Once fully established, the K-8 school will have two sections for each grade level, reaching a total of 500 to 525 students at full capacity.
While the plans for the school buildings are still evolving, the diocese has hired an architect to work on the conceptual design for the property.
“It’s all developed around this pond that is in the middle of the property. That progression of pre-k coming in as a very young student, and making your way around that landmark until 12th grade when you graduate—it’s purposely designed to incorporate that feeling that you belong here from the very earliest of days, until it’s time to send you off for your next endeavors.”
The school will be a cutting-edge design, Hammel said, with many opportunities for innovative learning. Hammel said they plan to have outdoor education spaces, including use of the pond for ecosystem studies. The construction will include sustainable technology, such as geothermal heating, so that the students can learn about how it is supporting their school, she said.
“The moment your front tires hit that driveway, there is something very peaceful,” Hammel said. “It’s simply a still image of God’s wonder. I’ve gone out there on a quiet day all by myself just to sit there and imagine children and the life of what’s to come there. It’s very, very exciting.”
The church will occupy the highest position on the hill and will be visible from Nolensville Road, Fr. Anthony said. His dream is that the church will be a more traditional, cruciform style of construction, and that it will be a church “bursting at the seams, full of life and thriving,” he said.
“My hope is that it’s really evangelistic for people driving down the road,” he said. “That they look up on that hill and say, ‘I want to go check that out.’ And that it’s something that everybody wants to be a part of.”
“I hope it’s a bright light to this community, that it’s a second home to all the families moving here, and, if there’s ever any crisis, we can be a place of faith and solace for people.”