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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Bishop Richard Miles, OP

Richard Miles is one of the unsung heroes of American Catholicism, and especially of its move beyond the Appalachians. This blog is dedicated to him. He was born on May 17th, 1791, the youngest of seven children born to a builder in Prince George's County, Maryland. The Miles family joined, five years later, a sizeable emigration of Maryland Catholics to Kentucky, and established themselves among fellow Catholics in Nelson County. There they prospered, and, from all accounts, lived quite happily. The Catholic community there grew, but not without the problems endemic to any frontier: a great lack of clergy and churches. This problem was greatly alleviated by the arrival, in 1805, of three Dominicans, who established churches and the first Catholic school west of the Appalachians. They also opened the second oldest monastary in the country, St. Rose's, near Bardstown in 1806.

Miles entered the Dominicans' school at 15. The record is unclear as to when he took the habit, but it was apparently in 1809. It at his investiture that he took the name Pius, after St. Pius V. After completing his studies and receiving ordination, he stayed on as a teacher at the college, where he distinguished himself. Thereafter he worked as a missionary in Ohio (Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana, and parts of Illinois had been split from the Diocese of Baltimore and formed into the Diocese of Bardstown in 1808 - a town that has surely lost some of its former glory). In 1833 he was elevated to superior of St. Rose's. In April of 1837, Miles was elected provincial for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph (including at that point the entire eastern United States) on the first ballot.

During this time, the population of Tennessee was growing, and the number of Catholics grew as well. Most of the laborers and craftsmen needed to build roads, bridges, and cities were at that time Irish, and they were in very high demand in the state. However, they were very reluctant to come to Tennessee, much less stay there for any period, as there was not in the entire state a priest or church, and the Catholic workers were afraid of suffering a mortal wound in their dangerous work and dying without the benefit of the sacraments. But such was the state in which all of Tennessee's Catholics, few and far dispersed as they might have been, lived. In fact, developers and would-be city elders attributed the slow growth in much of the state largely to the lack of Catholic institutions, such an impediment did it present to the importation of the necessary labor. Such were the spiritual deprivations that they lived under that in some places, such as Knoxville, which had many traditionally Catholic families, the faith died out completely for want of pastoral care. Such were the straits of the Church in Tennessee, and so inadequate were the resources of Bardstown to rectify them, that in 1837 it was recommended that the state be made its own episcopal see, and that Fr. Miles be nominated its head.

Pope Gregory XVI acquiesced to this request on July 28th, 1837, by act of the Brief Universi Dominici Gregis, and appointed Miles as Nashville's first bishop through the bull Apostoluatus Officium. Miles was consecrated in a well-documented ceremony in Bardstown on September 16th, 1838. He was presented the task of forging a diocese out of a state that was largely wilderness, in which there lived an indeterminate number of Catholics, most of whom had not seen a priest for years, if ever.

The reality turned out to be almost as disinheartening as the prediction. The state at this point had one ramshackle "church," a broken down building that, although bearing the name of the Most Holy Rosary, was in such disrepair that the priest who was ministering intermittantly to Nashville held mass elsewhere by this point. (The church stood on what is now Capital Hill, and had been built during the efforts to bridge the Cumberland River - the Irish workers had been brought in, seen there was neither church nor priest, and had promptly sat down and refused to work until the situation was rectified. So eager was the populace to have their bridge that the land was actually donated to the Church by a local Mason!) Miles arrived in Nashville in the Christmas season of 1838, and set out to see what was the nature of the land that had been entrusted to his care. Traversing the state, he discovered approximately 300 Catholics -- including one 80 year old man who, Simeon-like, had waited 30 years to receive the Blessed Sacrament. He renovated the Cathedral of the Holy Rosary, and arranged for churches to be erected throughout the state, and for priests to visit them regularly.

In 1847, Bishop Miles, having submitted to the pressure of the state to sell the ground the Cathedral sat on for the new capital, consecrated the new Cathedral, The Seven Sorrows of Mary, located just down the road from the old site. The new church was designed by William Strickland, the same architect who built (and is buried in) the Tennessee capital that supplanted the original church. (The architectural resemblance shows.) At the time, it was the largest structure west of the Appalachians with no internal support columns. Incidently, the industrious bishop saved the materials from Holy Rosary and later used them to build a church for Nashville's German Catholics. In the late 1850's, Miles travelled to Memphis to consecrate St. Peter's. This impressive Gothic structure was the city's first Catholic church (mass having before been said in a house next door to the site), and still stands today as almost indisputably its most beautiful structure of any kind or denomination. He built schools, a seminary, and a convent in Nashville -- a legacy carried on in the continued presence of the Domincan convent and college.

On February 21st, 1860, when Bishop Miles died, he left Tennessee much different than when he arrived. What had been an empty land devoid of the faith now contained 13 clergymen, 14 churches, 6 chapels, thirty "stations," a seminary, three communities of sisters, an academy for girls, 9 parochial schools, an orphanage, and 12,000 Catholics. He surely bears great responsibility for the existence of the Church in Tennessee, and the vibrance which it has come to have. Miles was buried beneath the altar of St. Mary's. In 1972, he was exhumed, and found to be incorrupt. He now lies in a chapel in the rear of this first of his churches. May his intercession continue to aid and guide those of us who owe our ecclesiastical institutions, and, in many ways, our faith, to his work and prayer.

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Anonymous Jeff S. Lieberman said...

I didn't think that anyone else in Nashville new of or cared about our illustrious Proto-Bishop.

Have you seen a copy of the Bishop's biography? There are very few left around (I have access to one)!

Of course there is some info in Bardstown but most of that is contained in the bio.

I bit of self-history - I am a former AG minister who was received into full communion 7 years ago.

Was confirmed at St. Rose in M'boro by the late Father Wiatt Funk.

Have since moved to Christ the King Parish.

Married, three children (26 ,21,18) the youngest of which is a Freshman at Aquinas College.

Attend daily Mass at the Cathedral a few times a week (love Father Kibby's homilies).

In addition, I also like Latin, consider myself a Catholic neo-con, enjoy the bells & smells of a High Mass and visit many "non-round" churches in spare time.

I count EWTN as being instumental in my wife and my going home to the Church.

I dislike liturgical abuse, Catholics acting "Pentecostal", church history "experts" who believe that history began in 1900 in Topeka, Kansas.

I am wondering if you would know what the most liturgically conservative parish in Nashville would be?

8:22 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

I only have experience with a few parishes around Nashville (I'm from Memphis but spend a good amount of time in Nashville), but I would imagine that there isn't one more liturgically conservative than St. Mary's downtown. Fr. Miller still uses the altar rail and wears his biretta -- he even says the Novus Ordo mass in Latin twice a month. The church itself is absolutely beautiful, but the one downside is that there aren't very many parishoners, so there isn't always someone to play the organ, for instance. Still worthwhile, though.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Layla said...

Paul forgot to tell you that he has, indeed, seen the biography that you mention (he got it on inter-library loan up in Ohio). In fact, it was his main resource in writing this post.

As you were an Assembly of God minister, I'm sure you know Billy Roy Moore, who baptised me. What a lovely man he is. (And it's a shame he's not a priest! His knowledge of Scripture is phenomenal.)

I'd second what Paul said about St. Mary's. I haven't been to very many parishes in Nashville (or anywhere else, really), but you can't get much more traditional than Fr. Miller without an indult. :)

6:04 PM  
Anonymous Jeff S. Lieberman said...

I have been to many of Fr. Miller's daily Masses but never have attended on Sunday.

My wife is an internet bookseller and has purchased a rare mint copy of Bishop Miles' bio. I should receive it in a few days.

I also have a copy of the History of Catholics in Tennessee by Stritch (the nephew of Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago - who was a native of Assumption Parish in Nashville).

I recently purchased a book entitled Catholic Women in Tennessee that was published in 1956 and has photos of most all of the parishe churches in the state at that time.

Insofar as the AG is concerned, it has been quite some time since I was actively involved in the Pentecostal movement. My wife and I met at the huge Phoenix First Assembly of God and later moved to York, Pa (we are both from NY/NJ).

I have really enjoyed reading your blog each night.

St. Mary of the Seven Dolors should grow exceedingly in a few years as there is construction on at least 10 high-rise condos in the downtown area. In the future, St. Mary's, the Church of the Assumption and Holy Name may once again be full each Sunday.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

My knowledge of the literature is woefully lacking in general, but I would recommend Between the Rivers: The Catholic Heritage of West Tennessee. I haven't had a chance to read it cover to cover, but I know 2 of the authors: Fr. Milton Guthrie was practically our family chaplain -- my grandmother was his housekeeper for years and years; Br. Joel McGraw is the vice principal of the high school I and my father (and uncles) graduated from.

I'm very glad that you've enjoyed the site so far, and I thank you for your kind words. We started the blog in part to provide a forum in which to consider and synthesize our own thoughts on matters and so come to understand them better, but also to provide service, information, and entertainment to others. I am glad that this has succeeded to some small degree.

As for the condos, I had not heard of that (but I invariably miss out on a lot of local news while I'm at school), but the prospect of having a congregation for St. Mary's and the other downtown churches is wonderful.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Without wishing to insult, there are some glaring inaccuracies here about 'Bishop' Richard Miles.

Richard Miles was not born in 1791but c1960 and is not the son of a builder (although he does have a penchant for hard hats).
He did not enter Dominican school at 15, but did go on an 18-30 holiday in the Dominican Republic aged 24.
Records are very clear when he 'took the habit' and it was not in 1809. It was a bit before he was 15 and is a habit that is most frowned upon by Catholics.
He did not take the middle name 'Pius', (it was thought that Pius may be a bit pious). It was Paul - named after one of the four Saints known as the Beatles because, at the time, St John thought they were better than J.C.
He was not, in 1972, exhumed and found to be incorrupt. He was exhausted and, by the state of his sheets, very corrupt.
My friends, his life is still corrupt. He has taken up 'glamour photograhy' (see and only pretends to be a bishop because he knows one and likes the big purple dress.
He also shagged my now dead wife.

4:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful blog, I'm a direct descendant of Richard Pius Miles. I have attended mass at his church in Nashville and have read his biography. I'm not sure where Mr. Anonymous got his information but it was obviously not from the biography nor was it factual.

7:15 PM  

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