By JV Lowry
A historical account of a past and forgotten incident within the newly formed Memphis Catholic Diocese of the early 1970s reflected the times of civil rights and urban renewal, a clash of character between an established and beloved parish Franciscan friar, and the new bishop in town.
A story of Father Joseph Eckelkamp of St. Mary’s Catholic Church
Researching the material for this story, which began in 1971, I spoke to more than twenty people who were members of this church or other Catholic churches or considered experts in local Catholic history in Memphis. All professed a similar story. I question why the newly appointed bishop would take on one of the most beloved priests in the city and try to disrupt and threaten the existence of his church, his parish, and Eckelcamp.
Background Story: Several believe Bishop Carroll Dozier wanted to sell the storied St. Mary’s church property for a parking lot. Some said the bishop was unhappy that parishioners were too fond of Father Eckelkamp and were not as fond of following the bishop. Either way, we do not know the reasoning other than the church members believed the bishop did not want the church to succeed for unknown reasons.
In the early 1970s, when urban renewal was at its height, some of the most prime real estate in the city was near 155 N. Third Street at Market Avenue, which just happened to be the address of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
St. Mary’s was established in 1860 as a German Catholic parish, with a German-speaking priest who ministered to and supported 1,400 German Catholics in Memphis. This church stood the test of time with an extensive mission history of the three yellow fever epidemics: 1873, 1878, and 1879.
In a quote from Between the Rivers by Brother Joel McGraw, Brother Joel said, “Memphis lost more than 8,000 citizens by death, including 3,400 Catholics. The Catholic Church lost twenty Priests, three Franciscans, eight Dominicans, eight secular Priests, and about fifty nuns.”  This church was right in the middle of the worst conditions for yellow fever. The dirty Bayou Gayoso, a body of rubbish and wastewater, ran through the parish’s center.
St. Mary’s was also in the middle of the Pinch District. This district’s predominantly German, Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants made this area their home. The Irish immigrants came when they fled the Irish potato famine of 1845-1852. Later, as they spread out into the city, the Jewish immigrants made the Pinch their home, ultimately building synagogues. The German Catholic population called for and was granted a German-speaking priest at St. Mary’s.
This storied church and neighborhood has been through a lot and survived. It had been the anchor church of some of the most poverty-stricken areas of Memphis. The long-time parishioners and those who cared believed that having it shut down or razed for the price of land development was unjust. In 1996, the parish boundaries were Thomas and Danny Thomas on the east, Poplar on the south, Mississippi River on the west, and Interstate 240 North.
Today, the Renasant Convention Center and the Sheraton Memphis Downtown Hotel stand at Main and Exchange within a block of St. Mary’s property. The Crowne Plaza Memphis Downtown name occupies the site on Market Avenue’s north side, directly across from St. Mary’s. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is a few blocks northeast of it. This property would be considered prime real estate for commercial development in 1972.
The story’s main subject, Franciscan Father Joseph Albert Eckelkamp, was born on November 3, 1919, in Washington County, Mo., and died on November 23, 1987, in Riverton, Ill. He was one of five boys and three girls. One of his brothers became a priest, and one of his sisters became a nun. His mother was an expert on Franciscan Law. Franciscan Priests take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. If you understood Franciscan traditions and values and knew Father Eckelkamp, you would say he followed them perfectly.
He was ordained in 1948 and became the assistant pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Chicago, Illinois. In 1961, he became the pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic in Memphis, Tennessee. He arrived at the historic church at a time of dying downtowns. Memphis began to suffer due to racial strife, urban renewal, and movement eastward. The existing downtown churches were losing parishioners to sprawling suburbia, the population was moving, and the establishments went along with them. Working with his parish and the community, Eckelcamp and the community brought the church back through his leadership.
Father Eckelkamp was a dynamic speaker. He could relate and interpret the Bible to his members better than most. He had a way of making you think that he was speaking directly to you. His message always hit home. A long-time member related that after his service, when she went home, she felt equipped to meet the stresses of everyday life and that God was with her. She said, “Father Eckelkamp was everything a good priest was supposed to be.”
Father Eckelkamp regularly visited the cancer patients of St. Jude Children’s Research – Hospital, sometimes twice daily. He was well acquainted with founder Danny Thomas. He was on call to the hospital when dying patients needed the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Father was known for visiting most of the eight hundred members of his parish and was an everyday visitor at the Shelby County jail, where he helped inmates and staff with their spiritual needs. He was a tireless force when working with the poor, needy, the homeless, prostitutes, and the hundreds of people living on the street. The soup kitchen at St. Mary’s was well known to all in Memphis. It has been in continuous operation since 1870. Soup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were and still are served daily from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., six days a week. The church members and the volunteers provided or raised the monies to fund the operation. Today, the expanded community donors and volunteer base still exist. St. Mary’s paired with First Methodist downtown to ensure no homeless person went hungry. On Thursdays, Father Eckelcamp had buses driven by members to pick up the elderly or those without transportation and take them to the grocery store. The church paid for the fuel. When you think about the mission of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the teachings of Christ, they were living it there. The members were living their faith under the driving force of Father Eckelcamp, and he felt he had the finest group of parishioners any priest could have. His Sunday mass brought in Catholics from other churches to hear him preach. He was inspiring, and churchgoers from outside the parish were generous with their donations.
For thirteen years, all was pretty good, and the Diocese in Nashville saw that West Tennessee, west of the Tennessee River, had grown and needed its own bishop. The first bishop of the new diocese was a long-time, experienced priest from Richmond, Virginia, who had pastored three churches. Bishop Carroll T. Dozier brought with him a reputation for getting whatever he wanted when he wanted it and was quite forceful in the process.
So, why would the newly appointed bishop take on the diocese’s most beloved, popular, and dynamic priest? Was it because of a personality clash, a clash of character, or maybe the value of the land on which the iconic church sat became a pawn in the disagreements? I do not even begin to guess why, but it happened.
Over the previous thirteen years, the church members developed a family-like relationship with their pastor. The church members worked tirelessly to support their priests and church goals while serving the Lord. They saved money to rebuild the monastery and other building projects. When the bishop found out, he took part of their raised money and told them that any money they collected belonged to the diocese. According to the Code of Canon Law, he was correct. Only the priest can control the church’s money. However, churches need and use financial experts to handle their finances. You can imagine how that went over. The bishop found he could not bully, force, or threaten (with excommunication) the St. Mary’s parish group. They would support their beloved downtown church without condition. In the past, St. Mary’s had a long history of issues with their bishop. In 1900, Bishop Byrne forbade Catholic members from crossing parish lines. In those days, there were only six parishes. The trustees of St. Mary’s went to court, filed an injunction against the bishop, and that was the end of that.
Working to protect St. Mary’s in January of 1974, Father Eckelcamp sent a letter to the State Historical Commission to request St. Mary’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places. On August 7, 1974, the church was one of 230 sites named and qualified for the registry. The bishop was incensed, as this would make it difficult to tear down St. Mary’s, and sent a scathing letter to the NRHP ordering them to remove the church from their site. They denied his request. In an article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar on August 29, 1974, page 25 , Lawrence Henry, the Tennessee State Preservation Officer, said, “I find personal sadness for the bishop’s stand on this matter.”
Tennessee State Senator James White (D) said, “Being a non-Catholic, my only interest is preserving St. Mary’s Church as a historical landmark in our city. If the bishop does not intend to sell the property, why would he object to its placement on the register? One would think he would be proud of the honor.”
History has a way of repeating itself in Memphis, Tennessee. The new bishop was upset because what he wanted was not happening, and he was not used to that. In an article dated August 22, 1974,  on page one of the Press-Scimitar, the bishop ordered Father Eckelkamp to vacate the property by 10 a.m., or the police would remove him. The trustees of the church had enough. After the bishop took what money he could get, he demanded the remaining $100,000. But the faithful trustees, including an attorney selected by Father Eckelcamp, would not give it to him. They had placed it in a certificate of deposit in a bank where he could not get it. The Parish Council and the church trustees became embroiled in a fight over the church’s donated money.
The parish donors refused to allow the use of their donations for anything else. The church raised it to repair the old buildings and to help with other expenses. Bishop Dozier was frustrated the church was not giving it up. The bishop threatened the trustees, including an attorney, with excommunication [without grounds]. Then, he removed Father Eckelkamp. He advised the head of the Franciscan order in St. Louis that he had a priest who was causing trouble, and as a matter of procedure before investigation, they backed the bishop. Father Eckelkamp, stripped of his pastoral position in Memphis, was ordered to leave. The bishop changed the locks on the church so no one could enter and did not even give the board of trustees or Parish Council a key. He confiscated church money and financial records. He locked out the church members. The bishop put one of his supporters in as the acting pastor, who later left the priesthood and became a secular teacher. The members would not trust the newly placed pastor, as they were suspicious of his sincerity as he aligned himself with the bishop’s desires and allegiance. From the beginning of this dispute, the bishop said he would not sell the church. But he was not doing anything to preserve and save the church. His actions showed just the opposite. 
With Fr. Eckelkamp off the property, the bishop told the congregation he would meet with them. Parishioner Richard Ryan had opened the meeting by petitioning the bishop to return Father Eckelkamp, whom he removed because it appeared he could not control or intimidate the priest. Soon, the encounter with two hundred members became unruly. During the heated discussion, Council Treasurer Richard Ball asked, “Would you permit the money to be used solely on restoration and maintenance of the church?” The bishop said, “This church is bankrupt.” At this point, the bishop was so angry he threatened the congregation with punishment and warned them of the consequences of their actions. James Ball asked the bishop, “If we gave you the money, what would you do with it?” The bishop answered, “Go to Florida.” At this point, the bishop left quickly after that remark. As the frustrated bishop left the church, he said, “If someone offered me 50 cents for St. Mary’s tonight, I’d sell it”.
After he left, Richard Sparks, head of the Parish Council, told the group they sent a letter to the apostolic delegate in Washington, D.C., as he felt the situation needed the attention of the higher authorities of the church. Sparks explained, “[The delegate] is the direct representative of the Vatican in Rome.”
The members believed that, from the bishop’s comments, he wanted the church to become a “Chapel of Care.” His designation of a Chapel of Care, a church stripped of its meaning and purpose, the mass, would function without an assigned priest. Within a year, he could sell it. This historian’s opinion is it is what he wanted to do in the first place, but he did not count on the resistance from the church members. An 88-year-old lady who was a lifelong member, now living in another state, asked to remain anonymous, “We were going to take legal action against the bishop if it had not ceased.”
The very popular and well-respected Brother Robert Louis “Bobby” Pera, a strong supporter of Father Eckelkamp and long-time manager of St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen, was also removed from St. Mary’s by the bishop. 
Former parish council president Francis Millington said Father Eckelkamp was loved by all who knew him. He was very popular and family to many of his congregation. “The Church has misused no funds.” He said about $100,000 of the $300,000 raised by the Church members was used to improve the church, and the remainder of the funds are in the hands of the church’s trustees. “The funds are still there; it is just that the bishop can’t get his hands on them,” Millington said.
Before Father Eckelkamp left, he told the Press-Scimitar that the parishioners of St. Mary’s knew where the trustees set up the $100,000 certificate of deposit and the passbook for the building fund savings account. The special fund was safe and held in trust for the specific use of the reason it was collected.
The bishop pursued every avenue to control the fate of St. Mary’s, but he failed in this case. He failed to intimidate the church members, who were unafraid of him. Their love of St. Mary’s was stronger than the trouble Dozier brought. I do not think he was pleased about this, but St. Mary’s stands today because of the conviction of Father Eckelcamp and its church members.
The bishop said he would have those involved excommunicated if the trustees holding the funds did not release them. Father Eckelkamp advised them that there was not sufficient reason to excommunicate someone for that. The bishop used his power and authority to get what he wanted but did not win this battle. Church leaders like Francis Millington, James Ball, Richard Ryan, and Richard Sparks were crucial players in this embittered situation, and we should remember them for their convictions. This whole situation was about the majority of eight hundred church members standing up against the selling of their church.
Father Eckelkamp transferred to Riverton, Illinois, to St. James Church, where he did not miss a step in serving his ministry. Even as the associate pastor, he continued to follow his vows. He cared for the members of this church as well as he did at St. Mary’s. He was head of Religious Education for adults and children in Decatur and Springfield, Illinois. He also served as the Worldwide Marriage Encounter Apostle. After a long battle with cancer, he died on November 23, 1984.
I received this timely letter from a long-time St. Mary’s member, Mike Crone:
My family has been around St. Mary’s Parish since the late 1800s. My grandparents were married there in 1905, and I was married there in 1976. In the ’60s, my cousin and I were altar boys under Fr. Joseph for several years. He was a dynamic speaker similar to Maxie Dunham at Christ Methodist later. He had folks from parishes all over the city coming down to St. Mary’s to hear his sermons. He revitalized the teen (CYO) at St. Mary’s. He loved nothing better than a special High Mass, including ordinations, priestly anniversaries, etc. Anything to have a procession and fill the church with incense! Margaret Ryan playing the organ and her mother playing violin made it even more special. On these occasions, he would invite other priests to join him on the altar, and there would be a dozen or so altar boys instead of the standard two. He even had a parishioner who studied the procedural rubrics and advised him how best to make the celebrations grand.
He raised money (once even having a Las Vegas Night fundraiser) to renovate the church building. That was when the exterior red brick siding was white stucco.
He ate dinner occasionally at my grandfather’s house and became friends with my uncle, a Franciscan priest. Joseph was a very competitive tennis player, and the two played often at Jefferson’s tennis complex. The parishioners were baffled and saddened when he transferred away from Memphis. Many said that the reason was that he had become “too popular.” Many in and out of the church shed tears at the terrible news. My family still reminisces about the happy days of Father Joseph at St. Mary’s.
Thanks, and All Best,
- McGraw, Brother Joel William McGraw, FSC. Page, 18. Between the Rivers. The Catholic Heritage of West Tennessee. Memphis, Tn., Starr Toof, 1996.
- Memphis Press-Scimitar, August 29, 1974. Page 25.
- Memphis Press-Scimitar, August 22, 1974. Page 1.
- Memphis Press-Scimitar, October 20, 1974, Sunday. Page 3.
- Memphis Press-Scimitar, October 25, 1974. Page 1.