Rita Cooper was afraid it was bad news.
"I knew the bishop was going to make an announcement," she said, "but I thought he was going to dissolve the parish."
Instead, Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church has been designated a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI.
Bishop Richard F. Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville made the announcement at a noon Mass before some 75 people at the Eighth Street parish Thursday.
"This is the mother church of this part of the diocese," he said. "This is a small way in which the [Catholic] church universal has recognized the importance of this parish and its people."
Sts. Peter and Paul is the first basilica in Tennessee and one of fewer than 70 in the country, the bishop said. The designation carries certain rights and privileges.
According to information from the diocese, minor basilicas are traditionally named because of their antiquity, dignity, historical value, architectural and artistic worth, and/or their significance as centers of worship.
A basilica must "stand out as a center of active and pastoral liturgy," a 1989 Vatican document states.
The parish was founded in 1852, its Gothic building was dedicated in 1890 and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Its colorful stained-glass windows were designed by artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, and its 14 polychrome stations of the cross were created by a French artist who was said in an 1892 newspaper article to have spent 17 years designing them and three years producing them.
The Rev. George E. Schmidt, pastor since 1986, was named the basilica's first rector.
Stika said the basilica designation had to be approved by the Vatican.
"Many churches are turned down," he said.
The Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul will continue to be a center of spiritual life and activities, Stika said. Except for the presence of several "ecclesiastical privileges," little will change, he said.
One symbolic change, he said, will allow the basilica to display the papal symbol - crossed keys - on banners, furnishings and on its seal.
"We recognize the building for its historical significance," Stika said, "but [the status] also honors the people."
Sts. Peter and Paul members approved the new status.
"I'm so excited," said Cooper, who said she'd been a member for 65 years. "I can't believe it."
Bert Shramko, a member for nine years, recognized the rarity of the basilica designation and said he was happy for Schmidt.
"It's quite an honor," he said.
A Mass of Thanksgiving is tentatively planned for Oct. 22, which is the recently established feast day for the late Pope John Paul II, officials said.