Tennessee Judge Approves Exhumation of Sainthood Candidate

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Knoxville is one step closer in its effort to name a former pastor of a Chattanooga church a saint after it received permission from a court to exhume his remains.

On Monday, a judge in Hamilton County Chancery Court said he had jurisdiction over the matter and issued the ruling after county attorneys declined to push back against the church’s petition.  

A colorized image of the Rev. Patrick Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Gaspar DeGaetano)

“The court … orders the Hamilton County Department of Health to issue a permit to exhume the physical remains of Patrick Ryan when it is presented with a copy of this order,” Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton’s two-page order states.

The order was prepared by Terrance Jones, an associate with Chattanooga-based Presley Law Firm representing the church.

In early November, the church filed a petition against the Hamilton County Department of Health seeking a clarification of state law governing exhumation.  

For the past several years, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Chattanooga has been looking into whether one of its old pastors, the Rev. Patrick Ryan, should be named a saint.

Ryan died from yellow fever after an epidemic raged in Chattanooga 140 years ago. The priest had decided to stay in the city and serve as a minister to residents left behind who had fallen ill.

Ryan’s case has forged new ground, as it is the first time the Roman Catholic Church has pursued a cause of sainthood in Tennessee. According to the church’s petition, the state’s law was not quite clear on exhuming bodies for the purposes of possible sainthood and it sought the court’s clarification.

As part of its investigation, the church wanted to examine Ryan’s remains and move him from a Catholic cemetery into the Basilica, which sits a couple blocks away from the county courthouse. The bell in its belfry was commissioned by Ryan.

The push to name Ryan a saint is also being pursued thanks to a recent declaration by Pope Francis that said there is a third path to sainthood. Besides martyrdom and living a holy life, Catholics willingly going into situations in carrying out their faith that lead to certain death is another path.

The grave of the Rev. Patrick Ryan, at the Mount Olivet Cemetery in East Ridge, Tennessee. (CNS photo by Daniel Jackson.)

The church had argued that it was unable to find Ryan’s next of kin to get their permission to exhume his remains. In his home country of Ireland, the last name Ryan is as common as Smith. Doing the genealogical research and going back decades to find a living relative would have been all but impossible, the church argued.

County attorney Rheubin Taylor deferred to the church’s assertions when he wrote the health department’s response, which was filed Dec. 20. 

“As to any legal conclusion, Hamilton County will rely upon the court’s interpretation of the law relative to this petition,” Taylor wrote. “As to any information which cannot be either admitted or denied, Hamilton County has no reason to dispute the statements contained [in the church’s complaint].”

A week later, Jones, the church’s attorney, filed a motion asking the court to make a judgment based on the pleadings.

The church expected the lack of conflict. According to the Basilica’s Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano, the county declared Sept. 28, 2017, as Father Patrick Ryan Day, which fell on the anniversary of his death.

Neither Jones nor Taylor responded to requests for comment.

A spokesman for the county, Mike Dunne, also did not respond to a request for comment after the order was issued. He said in an email last week that the county doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

The Hamilton County Health Department receives about four to five requests a year to move human remains, typically because a family would like to move a deceased member closer to the rest of their kin, according to Tom Bodkin, public information officer for the department.

The Rev. David Carter, pastor at the Basilica, said the church’s next step will be to petition the Congregation for Saints in Rome regarding the church’s desire to move Ryan’s remains. Not only does the church need the permission of civil authorities in hand, it also needs an architect’s plans for a sepulcher.

If the Congregation for Saints in Rome approves the petition, then Ryan will be declared venerable and his body moved. The Basilica plans to place the sepulcher, possibly made from an alter of green marble, in its sanctuary that is floored with heart pine. The church plans to place Ryan’s remains underneath the last station of the cross – the one where Jesus is placed in the tomb. The stations of the cross are a series of images depicting Jesus on the day of his crucifixion.

If Ryan is declared venerable, he will need not one but two miracles to be declared a saint. If the Roman Catholic Church finds that a miracle occurred because of Ryan’s actions, he will be called blessed. A second miracle makes him a saint.

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are 11 American saints, two blessed and 14 venerables.

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