New Arkansas Mission: Only Good Things Ahead

Posted: 1/15/2007

Booneville, Ark., church, 50th anniversary MassFor 30 years, the Benedictine monks from western Arkansas' Subiaco Abbey traveled 25 miles each week to say Mass for the people of the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Booneville. Although the congregation had access to the sacraments, sacramental ministry was the only contact they had with the Benedictine priests.

In 2003, the bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock asked Glenmary to investigate the possibility of ministering to the Booneville mission, and Fathers Neil Pezzulo and Chet Artysiewicz did just that.

"We found an existing community with a great potential for growth," recalls Father Neil, the pastor of the Glenmary missions in Waldron and Danville, Ark. "It had been a ‘sacrament stop' for many years, but we thought Glenmary could help them grow into a community." It was decided that Father Don Tranel would serve Booneville, Ark., as its first resident pastor and also serve as sacramental minister to Glenmary's mission in Heavener, Okla., nearly 60 miles away.

"During my homily the first Sunday I was here, I affirmed the people for the hard work they did all these years, even though they didn't have a resident pastor," Father Don says. "I told them I wasn't going to take away any jobs they had been doing, and that we could dream big dreams together and look for areas where we can be more active."

Because the Logan County mission was already established, an effort to call the Catholic community together was not needed. But as "the new kid in town," Father Don needed to introduce himself to the people in Booneville. For the first couple of months at his new mission, Father Don placed an item in the bulletin telling folks that he was available to bless homes. And he also let them know he was available for dinner if they wanted to put another potato in the pot.

Father Don did get a few invitations for home blessings—and dinner! But the announcement let the people know, without a doubt, that their pastor was both accessible and approachable!

When Father Don moved to Arkansas on July 1, 2006, he lived in a parishioner's vacant house. A couple of months later, he rented a house across the parking lot from the church. The move was an occasion for the parish to hold a great housewarming for him that included the donation of furniture, kitchenware, bedding and food. "They didn't overlook a thing," he says. "I even have a welcome mat and house plants!"

The housewarming helped Father Don settle into the area which, like other Glenmary mission areas, has a poverty rate higher than the national average and a per capita income far below both the local and United States average.

Logan County differs in one important way from most other Glenmary mission counties. There are other Catholic churches in the county. (Father Don remarks that this is the first time he has ever ministered in a county with more than one Catholic church!) The other churches, however, are a considerable distance away. None are closer than 20 miles to Booneville, and two are an hour away on rural roads.

Father Don hopes his presence in Booneville will add new life to the Catholic community, but he recognizes that his presence involves some adapting on the part of this mission parish. Change is difficult for any community, Father Don says, and even a blessing like a first-time resident pastor requires change in the ways things have been done for a long time.

The parish was unsure what its fate would be once they heard that the Benedictines from Subiaco were unable to continue to serve them. There was even a rumor, unfounded it turned out, that the parish would be closed. Father Don says the parish now feels comfortable that their future is secure and that good things are ahead.

Father Don commends the people of Our Lady of the Assumption for their emphasis on religious formation, pointing out that there is a religious education teacher for every grade level and that parishioners conducted a top-notch Vacation Bible School in 2006. He envisions the faith formation program becoming even stronger and more vibrant with the initiation of an RCIA program in the future. Since his arrival he has started to distribute information about the Catholic faith to people who ask, and he waits patiently for people to inquire further about RCIA.

"The people in the parish believe their best gift is their faith, and they work hard to pass it on," Father Don says. "They were troupers to carry on for so long with no pastor, and that speaks well of their dedication to the Church. They treasure the priceless gift of their faith."

This article originally appeared in the January 2007 Boost-a-Month Club newsletter.