a brief history of the basilica

Tiffany Windows in the Basilica in Chattanooga
The Basilica's beautiful stained glass windows were designed by renowned artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Chattanooga was founded in January 1852, when Father Henry V. Brown—a Presbyterian convert—became the first pastor. Catholics in Chattanooga met for Mass in a number of buildings from the early 1840s through the parish’s early years until 1890, when the current building on Eighth Street was dedicated. The former buildings included a nearly completed stone church demolished in 1863 by the occupying Union Army, which used the stone for fortifications and culverts.

Irish priest Father William Walsh was appointed pastor in 1887 and immediately made plans for a new church. Ground was broken Feb. 1, 1888, and the church was dedicated June 29, 1890. Then–pastor Father George Flanigen, in his 1952 history of the parish, described the building as an “imposing Gothic structure of brick and stone, 165 feet long by 75 feet wide, seating 1,000 persons.” The church was likely inspired by England’s York Minster cathedral, he wrote. Older photos of the church show its original 174-feet-high twin towers, “surmounted by 100 crocketed pinnacles and turrets,” in the words of Father Flanigen. Crumbling sandstone trim, however, led to the parish’s decision to remove the towers in 1939. The east tower, which houses the church bells, was shortened to its current height, and the west tower was removed.

The church’s stained-glass windows, designed by renowned artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, depict significant events in the lives of the parish’s patron saints. St. Peter’s life is depicted in the east-side (left) windows and St. Paul’s life in the opposite windows. The nave of Sts. Peter and Paul Church also has 14 polychrome Stations of the Cross, whose scenes depict Christ’s suffering, death, and burial. The French artist who created the Stations “is said to have spent 17 years in designing them and three years in producing a model to satisfy him,” according to an 1892 Chattanooga newspaper article.

Sts. Peter and Paul is the mother parish of many East Tennessee parishes. The first Chattanooga parish created from Sts. Peter and Paul territory was Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in 1937. The church underwent a $300,000 face lift in 1997 and 1998, when the ceiling vaults were painted, the Tiffany windows cleaned, the Stations of the Cross refurbished, and damaged areas repaired. In 2006 the church sent its then–70-year-old Kilgen organ to a firm in McDonald for repairs. Longtime organist Russell Goode—named a “Chattanooga Living Legend” in 2007—has held the position as the parish’s principal organist since 1960. On Oct. 24, 2010, Bishop Richard F. Stika dedicated the Emma Strahle “Bootie” Varallo Parish Hall, a $1.151 million project named for a lifelong parishioner. The parish hall was developed from the church’s 9,100-square-foot lower level, previously used for storage. Father George E. Schmidt Jr. is in his 25th year as pastor of the downtown parish, which is more than 600 families strong. Father Schmidt is among some 30 sons of the parish who went on to the priesthood.

In 2011, the church was elevated to a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI, and Father Schmidt was installed as its first rector.