Response to Crisis Put Arkansas Mission 'on the Map'

Posted: 9/15/2009

Father Don TranelIn 2006 Glenmary Father Don Tranel became the first resident pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption mission in Booneville, Ark., in three decades. Father Don had a vision for the future. But he couldn't foresee that he was also preparing his congregation for another turning point two years later—a fire that took away the jobs of many in the region.

Members of Our Lady of the Assumption were served for 30 years by a Benedictine monk from Subiaco Abbey, who traveled 25 miles to celebrate Sunday Mass and administer sacraments but had no other contact with parishioners. In 2006, in response to an inquiry from the bishop of Little Rock, Glenmary investigated the possibility of ministering to this mission in Logan County—where the percentage of Catholics is very small and the poverty rate is well above the national average.

Soon after, Father Don was named pastor in Booneville and sacramental minister for Glenmary's Heavener, Okla., mission 60 miles away. He also celebrates Mass weekly in Ratcliff, Ark., and monthly at an Oklahoma prison.

The Booneville parishioners were delighted when he came. "They understand that faith is a privilege and not a convenience," says Father Don. "During my first homily, I affirmed the people for their hard work and ‘sweat equity' without a pastor. My goal was to encourage them and draw out their gifts. We're blessed with many wonderful, willing people."

His first priority was community-building. "You need a strong community before you can have a church," he says. "I wanted to give them more opportunity to build that spirit. So we decided to have Wednesday ‘family nights' with planned activities for children and teenagers." These very popular gatherings now draw about 60 people.

With Father Don's encouragement and good leaders, the mission's youth group has become another great asset. "We just won the state award for most improved group," he says.

He has taken other steps to help young people feel more a part of the congregation and develop good stewardship. For example, they donate quarters each Sunday to Heifer International, which gives livestock and care training to needy families around the world. And each young person also receives one of four age-appropriate parish bulletins.

He has consistently focused on strengthening religious education. "The willingness was there," Father Don says. "We've just used team teaching to improve it." Vacation Bible School draws record numbers each year, including some non-Catholics. And the RCIA program has had 10 participants over the last two years.

In the midst of these positive developments at the mission, a devastating event occurred on Easter Sunday 2008 that would have a far-reaching impact on the area. A fire destroyed the Cargill Meat Solutions plant, the county's largest employer. And Cargill decided not to rebuild—leaving 800 workers without jobs, including members of seven mission families.

The local Ministerial Fellowship, 10 Christian churches including Our Lady of the Assumption, became one of the first responders to unemployed workers and their families. Within five days, the ministerial group established the South Logan County Family Resource Center.

The ecumenical response was "historic and unprecedented," says Father Don. Ministers set up offices to provide grief and economic counseling. Cargill assisted employees with benefits and with transfers to other plants if possible. And the Fellowship and chamber of commerce hosted a job fair.

Today, the incorporated, nonprofit resource center is open five days a week, staffed by a full-time employee and church volunteers. It provides job referrals, resume services, a food pantry, utility assistance and counseling.

Before Father Don arrived, his congregation had virtually no involvement in ecumenical efforts. But the Catholic community's role in the crisis "has really put us on the map," he says.

"We've been on the front lines. Our parishioners have given money and food and volunteer their time. And we've hosted Ministerial Fellowship and chamber of commerce meetings for the first time." Father Don himself facilitated donations of $19,000—including $10,000 from Catholic Charities of Little Rock.

"Attitudes toward Catholics are light-years better than before," says Father Don.

Because the mission has grown to 55 families, it now faces another challenge. Sunday attendance is about 107 in a church that seats 86. So mission members have created a building fund and are talking with an architect.

He says the mission's real strengths are its sense of community, youth involvement, outreach and ecumenical "visibility."

"The future is in God's hands," Father Don says. "But what we've gone through has made us stronger. We pray that we'll keep growing as a parish family and in our relationships with others—and that a new church becomes a reality. We want everyone to feel they're welcome here."

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.