Growing Up Glenmary: Julie McElmurry

Posted: 7/17/2017

By Frank Lesko

Julie McElmurry has always felt close to the Catholic Church. When she thinks of the church, she doesn’t recall making her first communion or serving Mass, she remembers eating dinner with Glenmary priests and sisters and swimming with them in the pool.

“The Glenmary priests, brothers and sisters were like my uncles and aunts,” she said. “They were always around during Christmas and Thanksgiving meals and other gatherings. They were part of our family. My parents moved to this area from North Dakota, so they didn’t have any other family here.”

Julie grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina – in Cherokee, a small town with few Catholics. It was the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and almost everyone is related, “except for us," she said.

Growing up a Catholic in the strongly Evangelical South, she continually felt like an outcast. Hers was one of only two Catholic families in the local school, and none of the children were in the same grade. It made it hard to defend their religion.
She remembers being shocked one day when her fourth grade teacher made an anti-Catholic remark.

"I was trying to muster all my knowledge from the Catechism that I was taught, trying to stand up to her and being shot down,” Julie said. “People from highly Catholic areas in the northeast have no idea what it's like.”

That is why the Glenmary community was such a blessing. For those who "grow up Glenmary," church is not just something that happens on Sunday mornings, it is woven into the fabric of daily life.

Glenmary had been ministering in the area since 1955, when the Our Lady of Guadalupe mission in Cherokee was established as an outpost of Sylva (and later as an outpost of Bryson City). It was returned to the care of the Diocese of Charlotte in 2000. Julie and her family lived in the area from 1977 until 1991.

Father Jack McNearney always wore combat boots with white tube socks,” Julie said. “My family owned a campground, so he would come swimming at our campground wearing his whole get-up, including the combat boots, and jump in the pool.”

Julie and her family felt accepted and supported by the priests and sisters she saw regularly, including Father Don Levernier, who beneath his formal exterior lay a compassionate heart.

“He gave my parents a loan when their campground fell on hard times,” Julie said, choking back tears. “There was no money coming in during the winter, and they had young kids and a mortgage to pay. My parents told me that he never asked for that money back.”

Julie’s story illustrates two important facets of Glenmary’s mission. It shows why Glenmary reaches out to isolated Catholics and why Glenmary builds positive relationships and better understanding with other faith traditions, especially Evangelical Christians. The hope is to reduce alienation and misunderstanding.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep is a guiding mantra for the missionary work of Glenmary (Luke 15:3-7 and Matthew 18:12-14). Just as Jesus described the Father who would leave the 99 to search for the one lost sheep, so too Glenmary eschews populated areas to minister to the few scattered Catholics, and others, in the rural United States.

“Many of my friends and family don’t get it,” said Father Neil Pezzulo, Glenmary’s first vice president. “They don’t understand why Glenmary would make all that effort for just a few people, but it’s what the Gospel calls us to do.”

Julie stands as someone grateful for that effort. It would have been impossible to attend Mass without a Glenmary mission. The nearest Catholic Church was a significant distance away, and her family would have been isolated from the Church and alone in their faith.

Scripture says to sow good deeds in faith and not worry about the harvest, for “one sows and another reaps (John 4:37).” Missionaries live this reality more than most. By the nature of the work, Glenmarians break new ground, build and then move on, trusting in God that the seeds sown will yield a bountiful harvest later.

In Julie, the missioners planted an interest in ministry. She is now a full-time lay minister in the Catholic Church. She earned a master’s in religious studies from Fordham University and another in Franciscan studies from St. Bonaventure University. She served as campus minister at Wake Forest University and Salem College, both in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.

As a campus minister, Julie once lived on the same street right between a Franciscan friary and a convent. She felt right at home and attributes that to her experience with Glenmary.

“Finding religious to be approachable and being able to form sincere friendships with them probably comes from those personal, friendly relationships with Glenmarians growing up,” she said.

Participating in a year of service through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps had a big impact on Julie. She worked at a homeless shelter and lived in community in Hartford, Conn., with other volunteers.

The challenges of that experience inspired  her to edit a book, Living and Serving in the Way of St. Francis. She partnered with Franciscan Service Network to create this book and served as the editor. It is structured around quotes from Saints Francis and Clare and is a compilation of writings by 40 former Franciscan volunteers who reflect on their own year of service. The book seeks to help others make the most of their service and cope with the difficult situations of poverty, abuse and neglect they often encounter in those they serve. Julie has also produced short films about religious life. Some of her films have been featured at international film festivals.

In 2010, Julie founded Franciscan Passages, a nonprofit organization where she helps churches, colleges and organizations with their spiritual needs. In addition to helping interpret and analyze the writings of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, Julie facilitates retreats, gives presentations, offers classes and hosts workshops. She said it is her goal and passion to share what she has learned with others.

Her background came full circle when she facilitated a retreat for Glenmary members in spring  2016.

Did you or someone you know "Grow up Glenmary?" We'd love to share your story. Contact us HERE.

For more information about Julie and her ministry or to schedule her for an upcoming event, visit her website.

This story first appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.