Patrick Ryan was born near Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1845. His family was poor and forced out of their home by their landlord. They decided to emigrate to America and settled in New York City, where Ryan was raised.
Ryan entered seminary in 1866 at St. Vincent’s College, Cape Girardeau, MO, in 1866. He excelled in athletics and became well known and respected for his common sense and reliability, if not for academic achievements.
Ryan chose to serve the Nashville Diocese in Tennessee. The Bishop of Nashville, P. A. Feehan, came from a family that were neighbors to Ryan’s own back in Ireland, and this may have influenced his decision to serve Nashville. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Feehan in 1869 and assigned to serve Clarksville and its missions. For three years, Fr. Ryan served Clarksville, Cedar Hill, and Edgefield Junction, and he built a church in Gallatin.
On July 10, 1872, Fr. Ryan arrived at his new assignment in Chattanooga. After the Civil War, business was booming in Chattanooga and it became one of the fastest growing cities in Tennessee, its population more than doubling in the decade from 1870 to 1880.
Sts. Peter and Paul parish had kept a school for the children for many years, but it was not a professional endeavor. Classes were held in the basement of the church and conducted by a layman or laywoman. Fr. Ryan hoped to improve the education of his charges, and he prevailed upon the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, who had arrived in Nashville sixteen years earlier, to come to Chattanooga and open a school. The Sisters arrived in July of 1876 and began Notre Dame de Lourdes academy. Notre Dame High School continues to educate the children of Chattanooga today.
Sadly, after only two years, the school was to serve as a hospital and orphanage in the face of the yellow fever epidemic that struck Chattanooga in the fall of 1878. Four fifths of the city fled the epidemic. Fr. Ryan and his good friend, Dr. Jonathan Bachman, the Presbyterian pastor, stayed to minister to the sick. Eyewitnesses testified that they saw Fr. Ryan “going from house to house in the worst-infected section of the city to find what he could do for the sick and needy.” His efforts were not limited to the Catholics of Chattanooga, but he served all until he was stricken by the plague himself. He was forced to bed on September 26, seemed to recover some on the 27th to the point where his doctor expected his recovery, but succumbed to the fever on September 28, 1878. He had received viaticum at the hands of his brother, Fr. Michael Ryan, who was in town to visit and assist his brother. “Bury me in Chattanooga among my people,” was Fr. Patrick Ryan’s last request.
The city honored Fr. Ryan’s request and he was buried in Chattanooga where, for eight years, his grave was honored as a hallowed site by the people who revered him and the sacrifice he had made in serving them. When Mt. Olivet Cemetery opened in 1886, the first Pontifical Requiem Mass in Chattanooga was celebrated in his honor, and Fr. Ryan’s remains were solemnly transferred in procession. The procession included over 100 carriages and was over a mile long. Dr. Bachman and the members of the relief committee of 1878 were reserved a place of honor in the procession. An editorial appeared in the Chattanooga newspaper the next day, November 12, 1886:
“The reburial of Father Patrick Ryan yesterday roused into vivid realization the terrible scene of September and October, 1878, in the restrospective vision of all who were his co-workers in that trying season.
The brave and faithful priest literally laid down his life in the cause of humanity. Only the morning before he was stricken with the deadly pestilence, the writer met him on his rounds of mercy in the worst infected section of the city. Cheerfully but resolutely he was going from house to house to find what he could do for the sick and needy.
Then the work of the destroyer was upon him, but he looked the one whose spirit had conquered the flesh, like one so absorbed in of dangers of afflictions of his fellow men that he was unconscious of personal suffering, unmindful of personal evil.
We shall never, to the hour we close our eyes for the last time, forget the unselfish and efficient work of Father Ryan and his elder eminent brother, Father John. It was peculiarly meet and very touching the respect shown the dead father’s remains yesterday by many of the chief survivors of that terrible fall. This was without regard to religious connections, as it should be. They were on a level then. The yellow scourge was no respecter of persons or creeds.”
In 1901, when the Knights of Columbus organized a council in Chattanooga, it was named for. Fr. Patrick Ryan.
On June 14, 2016, Bishop Richard Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville, of which Chattanooga is now a part, signed a decree officially establishing the Diocese of Knoxville as the petitioner in the Cause of Beatification and Canonization for Fr. Ryan. As such, his cause for sainthood is open and Fr. Patrick J. Ryan is regarded a Servant of God, the first phase in the process toward canonization.
“Heavenly Father, through the intercession of the Servant of God, Patrick Ryan, may I be granted the favor I seek [here name the favor you seek]. I ask this in the name of Jesus Your Son who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.”
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.