History of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church

First Catholic Ministry in Frayser

The first Catholic ministry to take place in Frayser for which there are records was a sick call made by Fr. Samuel Stritch (later Cardinal Samuel Stritch) and Fr. James Whitfield during the winter of 1912 at which time the two priests realized that there was a Catholic community of truck farmers, many of them Italian, who were losing touch with the Church because of their isolation and lack of instruction. A little less than five years later the two priests received permission n to celebrate Mass two Sundays a month and to have the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia who were assigned to St. Joseph Parish instruct the children on the Baltimore catechism and prepare them to receive the Sacraments.

The sisters went on to found a school named, ‘Madonna’ after our Lady but was forced to close shortly after starting due to the effects of the Great Depression. A church with the same name was also constructed for use. Bishop Alphonsus Smith decided to re-propose the school and church by giving the Poor Clare Sisters from Evansville, Indiana the opportunity to use the facility to build a monastery.

The Start of a Parish

In the summer of 1938, Fr. Natalis Wellner, O.F.M., started organizing a new territorial parish for general area from Frayser to Rugby Hills. The first census of those areas reported 125 Catholics living inside the parish boundaries. Regular weekly Masses were established and celebrated at the Poor Clare Monastery.

In response to the community quickly outgrowing the external chapel at the monastery, land was purchased in March of 1939 on Highway 51 near the intersection of Millington Road for the construction of a combination church and parish hall in what is now the Northgate Shopping Center. A building was constructed and Bishop of Nashville, William Adrian named the parish, the Church of Our Sorrowful Mother. A dedication Mass for the building was celebrated by Fr. Wellner on August 20, 1939. The parish later added an office, sacristy, and bedroom to the building and the entire project cost $4,100.

In January of 1942, Fr. Lucius Hellstern, O.F.M. replaced Fr. Wellner as pastor and two years later, on July 11, 1944, parishioners purchased six acres of land approximately a mile and a half north of the church on Highway 51 for $2,800. Plans were immediately put into action to build a school for the Catholic education for the children of the parish.

The Parish was Renamed

In July of 1949 the name of the parish was officially changed from ‘Our Sorrowful Mother’ to ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’. The crypt of the present church was built that same year and was dedicated in a Solemn High Mass by Bishop Adrian on January 19, 1950.

By fall of 1956, Our Lady of Sorrows had grown to 1,900 parishioners and had a school population of 400. Construction for the main church above the crypt began on September 23 of that same year. On March 17, 1957 the church doors opened for the first time and a month later Bishop Adrian dedicated the building on April 30th, 1957.

By 1959, the parish had 2,400 parishioners a new convent was constructed on property and sisters moved into the new convent on November 7, 1959.

Financial Decline

As the years went on a series of economic difficulties struck Frayser and caused the parish population and school enrollment to decline and the school was forced to close seventh and eighth grades and integrate their students with Memphis Catholic High School along with students from St. Anne, St. Michael and Blessed Sacrament.

Recent Pastors

In 2000 Fr. James Martell became the eigth resident pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows. Etched and stained glass windows were installed in the church replacing clear glass window panes. Fr. Martell started offering mass in Spanish one Sunday a month to address the increasing Spanish speaking population.

Fr. Bryan Timby was appointed pastor and succeed Fr. James Martell in 2006. Fr. Timby remained pastor for 16 years, th longest ever of any previous pastor and was succeeded by Fr. Rubén Villalon-Rivera who is the current pastor.

Current Pastor

Rev. Ruben Villalon Rivera joined Our Lady of Sorrows as pastor effective July 1, 2021.

Fr. Ruben was born in Morelia, Mexico, of Pablo and Hermelinda, the middle child of three. He joined the work force until his priesthood discernment in August 2006 and attended Minor seminary for three years 2006-2009 in Our Lady of Guadalupe in Morelia.

From 2009 to 2012, he studied philosophy in the archdiocesan seminary of Morelia before and then came to The United States to study English in the summer of 2012 at the University of Tennessee-Martin.

Fr. Ruben was accepted to continue his theological studies at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of theology in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from 2012 to 2017.

He received the diaconate ordination by his Excellency, James Terry Steib, S.V.D. in the Cathedral on the Immaculate Conception in June 2016 and was received into the priesthood of Christ by the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit by his Excellency Martin D. Holley, also in this Cathedral, in June 2017.

Before coming to Our Lady of Sorrows, his first assignment was a two-year ministry as associate pastor at St. Louis Catholic Church, and at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Memphis.