PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When Jose Galvan goes shopping near his home in Maryville, Tennessee, chances are the store will have a prayer request jar on the counter.
It’s just a small gesture, but he looks at it as a sign that he did the right thing when he and his wife Amy moved with their four children — Elsa, 17, LJ, 13, Cruz, 11, and Lucy, 4 — from their home in Northern California and settled in Maryville, a suburb of Knoxville.
May 25 marked the Galvan family’s first anniversary of living in Maryville. They migrated there from Sacramento in 2022 looking for a place to live that was more hospitable to people like them for whom faith is a central part of their lives.
“I’m happy. But it was bittersweet,” Galvan said of the cross-country move. “It was not done in spite or out of anger or anything like that. It’s purely that I sat down and looked at different things and I said I want something a little better.”
Jose Galvan, an IT technician who describes himself as a “cradle-to-grave Catholic,” had lived in Northern California — first in San Francisco and then Sacramento — his whole life and loved it. But in recent years, he had come to see it as a less-than-friendly place for Catholics.
The Galvans are part of a larger migration of U.S. Catholics who are pulling up stakes and moving to other states — in some cases thousands of miles away — where they feel more comfortable spiritually. In doing so, they leave behind states that made them uncomfortable because of increasing secularism and decreasing respect for religious values, like enacting pro-abortion laws.
For example, Galvan said one of the things that disheartened him was when Sacramento renamed a square that formerly had been named in honor of a church and instead named it after a commercial developer.
There is no hard data or statistics on the Catholic migration, but according to anecdotal information and media reports, religious people are leaving the Northeast and West Coast and moving to the South and the Great Plains.
According to a report from the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy, states like California and New York rank low in protection of religious liberties. In fact, New York came in 50th — dead last — in the rankings, which are contained in “Religious Liberty in the States Report.”
California was ranked 48th, just ahead of West Virginia. Mississippi had the No. 1 ranking in the report, which was released in January.
The center issued a numerical ranking to each state based on the number of religious liberty safeguards in that state, such as absentee voting laws allowing religious people to participate in elections and still observe religious holidays.
New York’s score was 15.48%, while Mississippi scored 81.82%. The Galvans’ new home, Tennessee, made the Top 10 among the 50 states, coming in seventh with a 51% rate of protecting religious liberty.
For Galvan, a combination of issues led to his decision. California’s pandemic restrictions definitely factored into his thinking. “It was during COVID that this kind of came to a head, realizing how it was very difficult to be a practicing Catholic. There were a lot of restrictions. We had to work to get the sacraments during COVID,” he said.
For example, many parishes stopped in-person confessions and livestreamed Masses, making it impossible to receive the Eucharist. “I get that COVID was a serious thing, but at the same time, what’s more serious than to die not in a state of grace?” Galvan said.
California’s liberal policies also made him think. “Abortion is so prevalent. And that’s disheartening because there’s a strong pro-life movement in California. There’s some wonderful Catholics that are fighting the good fight in defense of innocent life,” he said.
“But that factored a little bit into it,” Galvan added.
At the suggestion of a family friend, the Galvans went to Tennessee on vacation in 2021 and loved visiting Nashville, Chattanooga, Dollywood, and Knoxville.
In one of those moments that Galvan now looks back on and believes was the hand of God at work, the family attended Mass at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Knoxville. “And as we were sitting there, my wife was squeezing my arm because she’s hearing the announcements from the priests on all of the activities there,” he recalled.
They now attend Holy Ghost every Sunday and Galvan is a member of the local Knights of Columbus council.
The warm welcome they received from parishioners helped them make up their minds. After looking for a house online and finding one, they finalized their decision to move. “We also prayed a lot before we did it,” he added. Luckily, he is able to work remotely and kept his job at a small tech company.
To Galvan, the move made sense, given his family history. “My parents are both immigrants, my mother is from Nicaragua and my father’s from Mexico. They came here for a better life. So why shouldn’t I move my family for a better life?” he said.
While there is a lot he misses about California, he has no regrets because he loves living in a community where people are comfortable displaying religious values. “I got my oil changed the other day and there was a Bible verse on the receipt,” he said.