St. Patrick’s Catholic Church is one of Memphis’s most historic institutions. Tennessee’s Catholic Diocese in Nashville decided that another Catholic church should be established in Memphis because of the city’s population growth during and after the Civil War. The largest numbers of new citizens were African Americans from the surrounding plantation regions and Irish immigrants. Diocesan leaders saw St. Patrick’s, the third Catholic church founded in Memphis, as the church to minister to the large and growing Irish working-class population residing south of Union Avenue. St. Peter’s and St. Mary’s, the other two Catholic churches were, for the mid-nineteenth century, considered too far north (uptown) to minister to the needs of Catholics in south Memphis.
The Very Reverend Martin Riordan, V.G., conducted the church’s first mass in the St. Patrick’s parsonage, which was constructed in 1866 under his supervision. Riordan had already established a parish school in 1865. The Daily Avalanche of November 18, 1866, included a lengthy article about the elaborate ceremony in which Nashville Bishop Patrick Freehan laid the cornerstone for the new church at Linden and DeSoto (now Fourth Street); the completed church was dedicated on September 3, 1869. This original church was a plain brick structure about one hundred feet long and fifty feet wide.
While St. Patrick’s grew during its first four decades, not all of its history was positive. The founding year, 1866, is associated with one of the worst riots of the Reconstruction era. Many Irish residents of Memphis, some of them presumably parishioners of the soon-to-be dedicated St. Patrick’s, were active participants in the attack on freedmen and recently discharged African American Union soldiers in the city. The three major yellow fever epidemics of 1873, 1878, and 1879 decimated the Irish population of Memphis. An estimated eight thousand Memphians died during these epidemics; many of the victims were Irish who, unlike so many of the upper classes, had been unable to flee the city. Father Martin Riordan died in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, as did his assistant. In 1879 Father Edward Doyle, Riordan’s successor, died in that year’s epidemic. Even with these devastating epidemics, the congregation managed to grow to about 300 families and 240 students in the parish school by the late 1880s.
St. Patrick’s continued to be the parish of the working-class Irish residents of Memphis well into the new century. In 1904 construction began on a new and bigger church, which was dedicated on November 12, 1905. The Bishop of Nashville, the Right Reverend Thomas S. Byrne, though not an architect, had a Roman idea for this new church, and the completed St. Patrick’s design was decidedly Romanesque, featuring six large interior arches. With Memphis’s population now undergoing rapid growth, St. Patrick’s served as a “mother” church to two new churches founded at this time, St. Thomas’s, two miles farther south, and Immaculate Conception, located in the growing eastern suburbs of Memphis.
By 1954 St. Patrick’s was no longer a diocesan church. The Paulist Fathers took over St. Patrick’s when they moved their headquarters from Winchester, Tennessee, to Memphis.
A little over one hundred years after the nineteenth-century Reconstruction riot, Memphis suffered another violent episode. On April 4, 1968, during the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, James Earl Ray shot the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel, a few blocks from St. Patrick’s. This event happened in the same decade when many so-called downtown congregations began to sell their church properties to join a migration eastward to the suburbs. St. Patrick’s Paulist Fathers and the declining congregation decided to stay at Fourth and Linden.
In the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, St. Patrick’s has become one of the most progressive churches in Memphis. Faced with typical inner-city problems, situated in one of the poorest zip-code zones in the United States, the church conducts an outreach ministry unrivaled by most Memphis churches. By the 1990s the church had started a program of providing affordable housing in the neighborhood in conjunction with the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development. St. Patrick’s also built a new learning center that provides school care, youth sports programs, and a senior program in addition to other outreach programs. Recently its school, which had closed almost one hundred years after its opening, reopened as one of a growing number of Diocesan Jubilee Schools to educate neighborhood children. All of this is done, literally, in the shadow of the opulent $250 million FedEx Forum.
Brother Joel William McGraw, FSC, Reverend Milton J. Guthrie, and Josephine King, Between the Rivers: The Catholic Heritage of West Tennessee (1996); Thomas Stritch, The Catholic Church in Tennessee: The Sesquicentennial Story (1987)