Maryland Parish's Prayers and Support Follow Glenmary Missioner to Arkansas

Posted: 1/3/2010

Glenmary's mission in Waldron, Ark., celebrates Vacation Bible SchoolGlenmary Home Missioners receive prayers, financial support and donations from a wide range of faithful donors. But Glenmary Father Neil Pezzulo's case is unique: before he became a priest, he was already a close friend and fellow parishioner of his future missions' major supporters.

In 1997, Neil—a second-year theology student—met Msgr. Paul Dudziak, a seminary professor and also pastor of the Covenant Community of Jesus the Good Shepherd (JGS) in Owings, Md.

Two years later, when Neil was a just-ordained transitional deacon, he was hired by JGS. "It was a good place to learn and grow as a future priest," he remembers. He made many close friendships and also educated members of the large parish about Glenmary's charism to serve rural areas where less than three percent of the population is Catholic and poverty rates are well above the national average.

He was invited back to JGS to celebrate his first Mass. "I was told, ‘Wherever you go, we're going to help you and your missions,'" Father Neil says. "They've made Glenmary's work their own" by creating, sponsoring and staffing vacation Bible schools for the missions and providing other support.

Maryland Meets Arkansas: Bible Schools

Father Neil's first assignment was as associate pastor of Glenmary missions in impoverished Crossett and Hamburg, Ark., about 1,900 miles from Maryland.

The Crossett mission had an established vacation Bible school. But Father Neil told Julie Gartrell—the JGS youth minister and a very good friend and supporter—he wished someone could coordinate a program for the Hamburg kids.

"I told him I'd love to bring some youth volunteers and chaperones and run a program," Julie says. He gladly accepted, and for two summers JGS footed the bill for its volunteers to visit and conduct the weeklong session, which was received very enthusiastically by the mostly Hispanic children.

When these missions were returned to the Diocese of Little Rock in late 2003, Father Neil moved on to pastor two new mission communities in Waldron and Danville, Ark. The first is composed of English and Spanish speakers and the second, only Spanish-speaking families.

JGS volunteers promptly followed him and have run annual, extremely popular Bible schools for both missions since 2004. The programs are held for two consecutive summer weeks by two groups of volunteers (44 total in 2009) and chaperones (11 in 2009). The Hispanic children are bilingual, so there's no language barrier.

According to Father Neil and Julie, the benefits for everyone involved are many. The children learn more about their faith; have a week of fun and joy; and receive attention, respect and love. Meanwhile, Julie says, her volunteers share their faith, serve others, get a large dose of reality and build community.

"The children, the JGS teens and the missions' own teen volunteers gain new perspectives on life by getting to know one another," says Julie. "They become friends without barriers—and the friendships continue later through Facebook, e-mail and letters. They don't want the week to end."

The experience has had a life-changing impact on a number of the JGS teens. Some have gone on to more extensive Catholic volunteer work (Los Angeles, Argentina) and jobs related to law and immigration rights.

"Waldron teens have also learned how to help run their mission's vacation Bible school," she says. "The mission is close to handling it on their own—which is the ultimate goal." In addition, led by pastoral associate Kathy O'Brien, these teens have held an annual Bible school at Glenmary's Heavener, Okla., mission the last four years.

Other Support and Outreach

JGS has provided invaluable support in many other ways too. "We just ask how we can help," says Julie.

Shortly after Father Neil first reached Arkansas, he says, "JGS folks filled a truck with nice clothes and toys as Christmas presents for kids in the mission counties. Then two parishioner friends drove the truck to Crossett.

For a while his missions were also a parish tithing option. Now he and Julie, his chief contact, keep in touch about the missions' needs, and she includes items in the JGS parish bulletin that always draw responses.

"JGS is one of the most generous parish supporters of Glenmary missions," says Father Neil. And JGS pastor Father Mike King backs these efforts.

The primary ways JGS parishioners help these days include prayer; summer Bible schools; a large moving van, sent biannually, filled with clothing, diapers, toys, cribs, car seats and baby-care products; and private donations to meet varied needs Father Neil identifies. For example, JGS parish members donated a significant amount to help the Danville mission top off its fundraising for a new church. In addition, they covered half the cost of new church furnishings.

Father Neil also emphasizes his mission members provide services to the poor in their counties largely because of an outreach account established with JGS donations. "We couldn't do it without them," he says. "The two main focuses are prescription medicine and utility bill payments for struggling people. We also support local food banks, Waldron's Christmas angel tree project, Danville's Toys for Tots and other people in need. And we distribute clothing, toys and baby supplies in both counties and in Heavener."

Reflecting on the relationship between his impoverished missions and Jesus the Good Shepherd parish, Father Neil says, "What we have to offer the JGS community are prayers, thanks and all the outreach work we do with their help. This relationship is a real testament to what the Church can and should be."

For information about adopting a Glenmary mission or missioner, contact Allison Barrett— or 800-935-0975, ext. 7440.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Home Mission News.