Pastor Has a 'Gift for Making Things Happen'

Posted: 4/14/2010

Glenmary Father John Brown and Glenmary Brother Virgil Siefker

After almost 20 years as a Glenmary pastor, Father John Brown took over the pastorate of the Swainsboro, Ga., mission in April 2006, with outreach to Stillmore. He and his parishioners have met many tough challenges as the mission has struggled and grown.

"I'm always encouraging them," he says, "and I'm proud of their efforts to grow as a community." Until August 2007 he also acted as pastor of the Metter mission, where he still serves as sacramental minister.

Swainsboro and Stillmore are in Emanuel County, where the poverty rate is about 27 percent and less than 1 percent of the population is Catholic. It's just outside Vidalia-onion territory, where many migrant workers come spring and fall.

Fluent in Spanish, Father John was well prepared for his new, diverse mission communities. As volunteer religious education director Patti Tramontana says, "Father John has great faith in God. And he has a gift for making things happen."

Prior to his arrival, two pastoral associates had left due to illness and retirement, respectively. So Father John was a one-man staff. With five weekend Masses (three Spanish, two English) in three mission areas; an extra 30-plus Masses a year at six migrant worker camps; and ministries for Catholics, county residents and visiting farmworkers-he was in almost constant motion. The Mass schedule is the same today.

In 2007 retired Army chaplain Father Vince Burns relieved some of the workload when he spent seven months ministering in Metter. Sister Mary Bordelon was hired as pastoral coordinator that August to lead the Metter mission.

Glenmary and the Diocese of Savannah are still searching for a pastoral associate for Swainsboro. "I do as much as I can," says Father John, "and the parishioners help as much as they're able."

Five months after Father John was appointed pastor, the county residents and the mission community weathered an "ICE Storm." In fall 2006, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided Emanuel County, arresting and eventually deporting about 150 men. Hundreds more people moved away, and fears lingered.

But Swainsboro's Holy Trinity mission has made a strong comeback, Father John says, with 80 to 120 attending Spanish Mass and 40 to 60 attending English Mass. In Stillmore, 25 to 40 gather for Spanish Mass in a small storefront.

The small mission church in Swainsboro has pew space for only 70 and has a very small parish hall. Most Sundays at the Spanish Mass, the church is filled beyond capacity with up to 120. In addition, 50 to 80 youth and adults participate in religious education classes. Every Sunday they crowd into the rectory, church and sacristy. A new church is really needed, says Father John, but for now it's financially out of reach.

Father John and mission members are also involved with community outreach including tutoring and home visitation, and ecumenical efforts such as a Lenten program and a thrift store. Two men in discernment with Glenmary assist with the ecumenical food bank and other activities. And Father John belongs to the Rotary Club and ministerial association.

The major outreach for the Swainsboro and Metter missions involves serving 300 to 500 migrant workers five months a year. The missions provide workers with personal hygiene products, food to last until the first paychecks, assistance with medical care, and gift cards-and about half with new work clothes. In addition, Father John celebrates Masses in the migrant camps.

The missions receive donations for this ministry, but it's still "a tremendous stretch," he says. For instance, the Swainsboro mission needs more donated clothing and a shed for sorting the clothes, but funds just aren't available. "The migrant workers' needs are great. What we do is just a good start."

Even with these challenges, great strides have been made. "In Swainsboro, we have an active, bilingual parish council that helps bring the parish together," Father John says.

He also emphasizes getting young people more involved. For example, he started a youth group based in Swainsboro. "I wanted to change the trend of teenagers drifting away from the Church," he says. "The group has made a difference, and it's been another unifier."

In addition, the Holy Trinity mission has strengthened its religious education program. In 2009 alone, nine mission members were baptized, 30 received first Communion, 17 were confirmed, two couples were married, and five people completed the RCIA program.

Father John is grateful to God and the mission's benefactors—and says prayers are as important as material support. "We need to keep putting things in God's hands."

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.