Fruitless robbery at Holy Ghost in 1931

Beth KinnaneNorth Knoxville, Our Town Stories

There was lots of exciting news in Knoxville in the days following Christmas back in 1931. That year, Christmas fell on a Friday. The next Monday’s headlines included a story about the first cars traveling over the new Henley Bridge: just a few, though. An official dedication would happen the following Saturday, after which it would be “thrown open to traffic.”

The nation was firmly in the grip of the Great Depression as well as Prohibition. A fracas had ensued just outside Newport (no surprise there) between rival factions of moonshiners. What was described as an ambush landed one “rumrunner” Joe Vance in Saint Mary’s Hospital (R.I.P.) in critical condition. He’d been shot three times through the arm and once through his back after getting out of his car to remove debris blocking Highway 12. Vance was 27, a resident of Sutherland Avenue and had already served time for running illegal liquor. He refused to identify his assailants to law enforcement, didn’t want to be a “squealer. I’ve been handling liquor since I was 15 years old. Can’t quit … not now.”

Destruction of the altar at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in 1931 (Photo credit: KNS digital archive, Dec. 28, 1931).

But the Grinchiest headline of local interest that day was a robbery of divine proportions. Some time after all the Christmas and Sunday masses were finished, thieves broke into Holy Ghost Catholic Church on Central Street. And boy did they make a mess of things. The front-page headline read “Catholic Church Altar Is Violated: Robbers Get Precious Safe at Holy Ghost.”

Now, I am not Catholic, but somewhat Catholic adjacent (my Irish ancestors went to Immaculate Conception and Holy Ghost). So, my apologies forthwith if I fumble this a bit. What the Knoxville News Sentinel described as a safe is what is called the tabernacle and it contained the “blessed sacrament” – the wine and bread/wafers used for the Eucharist/communion. According to the article, the thieves likely believed they were getting away with items that had some level of pawnable value to them, like the paten, chalice, monstrance, etc.

The tabernacle was fixed in the altar at the foot of a figure of Jesus. The bandits smashed through marble to tear all 100-plus pounds of it out and cart it away. Father John V. Cunningham, parish priest at the time, said “why we would protect the Blessed Sacrament with our lives.” Church leaders explained the loss was no less than if the whole church had been brought down by a storm. It was the new Holy Ghost, after all, dedicated in 1926. The original Holy Ghost (which still stands on the same block) was dedicated in 1908, but in less than 20 years, a larger building was already needed.

As it was, the only items that could possibly have any cash value in the tabernacle were some gold-plated cups. Though not reported in the newspaper, according to the church’s parish history, the tabernacle and its contents were found three days later in an unoccupied house downtown. It was also reported on that same day that thieves had attempted to break into a safe at First Baptist Church downtown but were unsuccessful. This was also the “new” First Baptist, which opened in 1924.

Maybe stealing from a church just isn’t the brightest idea.

To learn more about the history of Holy Ghost Catholic Church go here.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Sources: The Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives (Dec. 18, 1931), Holy Ghost Catholic Church


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