A small number of Irish Catholics were residing in the area when the city of Knoxville was established in 1794. By 1810 there was talk of establishing a Catholic parish and building a church on the banks of the Holston River. This sparsely populated frontier had received a few visits from traveling priests, however, there was no priest available to take up residence and the plans were never realized. With the creation of the Diocese of Nashville in 1837 and the construction of the railroads in the 1840’s a new group of Irish Catholics migrated to East Tennessee and, more specifically to Knoxville which had become a hub for the construction.
In the early 1850’s, Bishop Richard Miles, first bishop of Nashville, appointed Father Henry Brown as the first resident priest of Knoxville. His main goal was to organize a parish and in February of 1855, Father Brown purchased land on Summit Hill at the corner of Vine Avenue and Crooked Street (now Walnut). Father Brown, a gifted artist and amateur architect, drew up the plans for the church in the Gothic Revival style.
The details of the stone work, the contrasting coloring of the stones, and its graceful proportions made it an architectural gem in a town that still reflected its pioneer beginnings. All the labor for the church was done by its members, most of whom were stone and marble workers. Construction progressed swiftly and the church, perched on the highest hill in the town, was dedicated by Bishop Miles in the fall of 1855.