Catholic converts on the rise: East Tennessee among nation's top 10 growth areas

photo Faithfuls gather in St. Peter's Basilica during Pope Francis' mass of Pentecost, at the Vatican on June 8, 2014.

BY THE NUMBERSTennesseeCatholic -- 8.1 percentProtestant -- 75.7 percentNonreligious -- 9.6 percentGeorgiaCatholic -- 10.7 percentProtestant -- 70.6 percentNonreligious -- 10.4 percentNational AverageCatholic -- 24.1 percentProtestant -- 50.8 percentNonreligious -- 15 percentSource: Gallup 2013 polling

There was the man inspired by the written words of Pope Francis. There was the agnostic professor. And there was the widow of a Baptist preacher.

All of them Tennesseans, and all of them recent converts to one of the world's oldest Christian faiths.

In the South, Catholicism is growing. The Diocese of Knoxville was recently ranked among the top 10 in the nation for its rate of adult conversions.

All Southeast Tennessee Catholic parishes, including Chattanooga's, fall under the umbrella of Knoxville's diocese, one of 195 in the United States. A diocese is a geographic collection of parishes grouped together under the governance of a bishop. And many of the dioceses producing the most converts to the church are right here in the South, according to a recent study by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Rates of Catholicism have always been strong in the Northeast and Midwest. But not in the Protestant-heavy South.

So it's no wonder that Catholicism is growing faster here.

Mark Gray, a senior research associate at the Georgetown Center, said marriage is a common driver of Catholicism, as non-Catholics marry Catholics. And in Tennessee, non-Catholics and Catholics are more likely to marry simply because there are not enough Catholics to marry only other Catholics.

In the Volunteer State, about 8 percent of people are Catholic. That compares with 40 percent in Massachusetts and the national average of 24 percent.

"Tennessee is the third-least Catholic state in the country, which is exactly where we would expect these conversions to occur, because that 8 percent are likely marrying non-Catholics," Gray said.

In the Catholic Church, conversion is a commitment. It's more formal and involved than switching from one Protestant church to another. And conversion is a commitment to the faith, not necessarily a particular church.

Before joining the church, converts take part in a college-like class that can last from nine months to a year.

"It is a very long program, and it's not something we take lightly, nor do the people becoming Catholic take it lightly," said Marvin Bushman, the director of religious education at Cleveland's St. Therese of Lisieux. "It is a big commitment."

Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika said the church is growing from rising minority populations, mainly Hispanics. Knoxville recently established a Vietnamese parish. And this part of the country is attracting more retirees and families, many of whom are Catholic.

"We're a growing Church, both in people who are choosing to become Catholic as well as people moving in from out of town," Stika told the diocesan newspaper, The East Tennessee Catholic.

At St. Therese, Brenda Blevins oversees the Catholic conversion program, called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA. The Diocese of Knoxville, which includes 47 parishes, receives about 350 adult converts each year through RCIA.

Some come after marrying or dating a Catholic, but Blevins said many of their recent converts were single. And the RCIA program doesn't want people to just marry into the church.

"We want people to be here because they want to be and because they feel a call," she said.

And each convert has his own story. There are the college-age brothers who just joined together. And the widow of a Baptist minister who married a Catholic. Some come from Protestant churches; others have never been baptized into any faith.

"I think part of the reason the Catholic Church is growing so much in Southeast Tennessee is because Southeast Tennessee is part of the Bible Belt," Blevins said. "And there are a lot of faithful Christians here."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.