Glenmary at 75: Still Much Work to Be Done

Posted: 4/15/2014

Seventy-five years ago, the weakness of the Catholic Church in rural America haunted Father William Howard Bishop, a 53-year-old priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore with experience as a rural pastor. Two years earlier, in his 1937 address at the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, he had described a visionary plan to reach the "millions of souls who have no contact whatever with a representative of the Church." His dream was that the Church would eventually be present in every U.S. county.

Then in 1939, he traveled to Cincinnati at the invitation of Archbishop John McNicholas to found Glenmary Home Missioners, a society of missionary priests and brothers that would go out to establish the Catholic Church and serve people in the neglected rural areas of America. Father Bishop started with only his vision and dream, a handful of men, few supporters, little organization, and practically no direct experience with home missions.

But the process he envisioned 75 years ago when he began his "little missionary order" worked. Since that time, more than 100 mission communities have been called together by Glenmary missioners in rural counties of Appalachia and the South where the Catholic Church did not exist before—then nurtured, built up and eventually returned to local dioceses for continued pastoral care.

Today, most of those Catholic communities are still flourishing and making a positive impact on the people of their counties. And from the start, generous and faithful supporters have made Glenmary's ministry in Mission Land, USA, possible.

In each of the impoverished mission counties they've entered, missioners have served the spiritual and material needs of all the residents—in Father Bishop's words, "providing the temporal and spiritual works of mercy, feeding and clothing the hungry and naked, ministering to the wounded and sick...and loving the poor and underprivileged." And those missioners have worked to change people's lives for the better.

Starting in 1958, lay coworkers began playing an important part in Glenmary's ministry, too, as the need for dedicated laypersons and lay pastoral ministers continued to grow.

From humble beginnings of serving one mission area with a handful of missioners in 1939, the Glenmary society has successfully established and nurtured Catholic communities; initiated and furthered ecumenical cooperation and Christian unity; evangelized the unchurched; and worked for justice for the poor and marginalized in the home missions. Glenmary is still the only Catholic missionary group that serves exclusively in the U.S. missions.

But from Glenmary's perspective, there is still much work to be done. In the Southeast alone, there are more than 350 counties without a resident Catholic pastoral minister or a Catholic church.

While Glenmary is looking to the past as it celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, this band of missioners remains focused on meeting the needs of its current home missions and ministries—and preparing to serve new counties so that others can know the gifts of the Church.

With the ongoing financial and prayerful support of its partners in mission, Glenmary plans to continue its work "as true ambassadors of Jesus Christ, true messengers and servants of God among God's people," as Father Bishop intended.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 Home Mission News newsletter.