Richard Miles is one of the unsung heroes of American Catholicism, and especially of its move beyond the Appalachians.
Birth and childhood
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.
Vocation to with the Dominicans
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.
Tennessean Catholics suffer for want of the sacraments
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.
Miles named Bishop of Nashville by Gregory XVI
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 Capitol 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’ arrival in Nashville
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.
Construction of Cathedral of St. Mary
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, about a block 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.
Other foundations by Bishop Miles
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 Sisters of St. Cecilia and their Aquinas College.
Death and legacy
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.
Bishop’s body found incorrupt in 1972
In 1972, as the Church of St. Mary’s, no longer the Cathedral, was being renovated, Bishop Miles’ body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt after 112 years. Bishop Miles’ successor, the Most Rev. Joseph Aloyius Durick, the Eighth Bishop of Nashville, conducted appropriate services and had the Bishop’s body reinterred in a fitting tomb with a chapel in the rear of St. Mary’s.