After the Fire

Posted: 1/3/2017

By Frank Lesko

A fire engulfed Sts. Mary & James Church in Guthrie, Ky., on February 10, 2015. The blaze originated in an appliance in the adjoining hall and spread to the sanctuary. No one was hurt, but damage to the structure was total. In the aftermath, local ecumenical ties have grown stronger. 

“That church had been there a long time, and it became part of the community,” said Buck Tidwell, pastor of nearby Tiny Town Baptist Church. “Even folks from other denominations felt like they had lost something.”

In 1942, Glenmary Home Missioners began serving the community of Guthrie, Ky., and the residents of Todd County. The missioners constructed Sts. Mary & James Church in 1948 and have fostered robust ministry efforts in the county. Glenmary Father Frank Ruff served as pastor to Sts. Mary and James, as well as St. Susan in Elkton, from August 2000 until the parishes were returned to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Owensboro in 2008. Father Frank took senior membership at that time, but he has continued serving as Sacramental Minister in Guthrie.

The Catholic community would have been “homeless,” but when the church burned down, the congregation was able to lean on longstanding relationships of goodwill with other churches—which Father Frank Ruff, and other Glenmarians before him, helped nurture.

“(Protestant) ministers and Amish people came running during the fire,” explained Anita, a Catholic parishioner. “Before the roof collapsed, everyone from town rescued everything ... It was a sight to see a Baptist minister carrying out a statue of the Blessed Mother.”

With the church gone, offers started pouring in almost immediately. Five churches and two civic organizations offered space for the Catholics to celebrate Mass.
After a brief stint at the Guthrie Transportation Museum, the Catholic congregation worked out an arrangement to meet at Tiny Town Baptist Church.

A warm and friendly relationship between the two faith communities has developed. All agree that respect has been key. The Baptist and Catholic communities work hard to share the building and to be good neighbors. The Catholic congregation keeps the necessary items for Mass on carts at the back of the church. They set up for Mass and then meticulously return the space to its original configuration so that it’s ready for Baptist Sunday School and worship.

The Catholic and Baptist communities share more than just a church building. Friendships have been formed and strengthened. They pray for each other regularly and assist each other when needed. In January, the Catholic community treated their Baptist hosts to an afternoon meal and social time in appreciation for their hospitality.

“It’s bringing the (larger) community closer together,” remarked Pastor Buck. “It has really been a blessing.”

One evening, Pastor Buck walked into the dark Baptist church and was surprised to see the tabernacle candle still lit. He wanted to blow it out, figuring it had been left burning accidentally. When he reported this discovery to Deacon Heriberto Rodriguez, parish life coordinator, he was surprised to learn there are times when Catholics leave the candle burning continuously.

“He explained what it means and reassured me that it’s in safe (fire-resistant) glass,” remarked Pastor Buck. “Now when we go in there, we look to see that it’s lit.”

Father Frank is an ambassador of the Catholic faith to people from all denominations throughout Todd County, Ky. He is a friend to clergy and is a regular face at Wednesday night revivals hosted by various evangelical churches. However, he acknowledges he is building on an established tradition.

“The ice was broken long ago,” he said. “The Glenmary Sisters began their ministry in Guthrie in 1944, reaching out to everybody, regardless of church affiliation.”

The men of Glenmary have followed suit in their own ways. In particular, Father John Brown (pastor, 1987-94) and Father Tom Charters (pastor, 1994-99) were active in the local ministerial association. This group would plan ecumenical worship events, address charitable needs and simply build relationships with each other.

“That’s one of the values of Glenmary,” Father Frank said. “You get a sustained and consistent approach to the missionary endeavor. The attitude of general positivity between denominations was there before I came.”

Father Frank said good relationships between denominations are a matter of the heart as well as the head.

“It is not enough to have formal agreements and scholarly statements,” he cautioned. “You have to bring the attitude of respect and cooperation with each other.”

The Diocese of Owensboro recently established the new parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Todd County, on March 24, 2016. It is made up of the former parishes of Sts. Mary & James in Guthrie and St. Susan in Elkton. Both communities were already discussing a possible merger long before the fire. They were outgrowing their buildings and were already sharing Father Frank and Deacon Heriberto.

A new church is being built for the Elkton and Guthrie communities to share, but for now the former Sts. Mary and James parishioners remain at Tiny Town.

The new parish name comes from three sources: First, it honors Francis of Assisi, a popular saint, even among non-Catholics. Secondly, the name is a tribute to Pope Francis, much beloved by parishioners. Finally, it recognizes Father Frank, whose given name is actually “Francis.”

The name is a good reminder that buildings may come and go, but the influence of Glenmary has left a profound and lasting mark on this community.

This story was published in the Winter 2016 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine. A version of this article first appeared in the May-June 2016 issue of Nurturing Faith Journal & Bible Studies (nurturingfaith.net) and is reprinted with permission.

Fire photo courtesy of Smokey Barn News via Brandy Trejo