Adapting to Life in Appalachian Mission
Michele Bertot was recognized recently at the local grocery store in Vanceburg, Ky., as being from "the Catholic Church." This is a good thing from Michele's viewpoint. It means she, the new pastoral coordinator of Glenmary's mission there, and her husband Ted are becoming part of the Lewis County community after living in the area since August.
"It's funny," she says. "The people of the county know all about us. They know where we're from, when we arrived, about our family. Now, they are getting to know us personally."
And the local Catholic community is also getting to know Michele and vice versa. "This whole experience of moving to Lewis County and being welcomed so warmly into this church community has been wonderful," she says. "We are really beginning to feel like we belong."
Located in northeastern Kentucky, Lewis County is one of the poorest counties in the state. Unemployment is high—and so is the poverty level. And the 25 families of Holy Redeemer Church are in a definite minority. But despite these negatives, Michele says she and her husband have found nothing but positives in the people they have met and continue to meet.
"This area is a lot more isolated than the area we came from (an 800-family church located in a suburb of Rochester in upstate New York)," she says. "But we are really enjoying the quietness of our life now. And the people here—both in the church and outside the church—are a community in all senses of the word. We feel very blessed to be part of these communities."
She's had many opportunities in these past months to learn about the culture, the area and the people of both communities—and has had opportunities to try new things.
In September, the mission participated in the local School and Agriculture Fair. Members of the mission staffed a booth and handed out Catholic literature. "We talked to folks about being Catholic and invited them to church," she says. "Both things were new experiences for me, and I was a little worried that people would be put off. But they weren't. People were very interested."
And a parishioner, who completed the RCIA process last spring but was unable to attend the Easter Vigil, was welcomed into the church in the fall. Through that joyous celebration she was able to "experience how the whole community came together, celebrated and participated in the event."
Michele also experienced her first Project Merry Christmas in December. For over 20 years this event has made it possible for those in need to "buy" new Christmas gifts for their children. The annual ecumenical effort is sponsored by the local ministerial association, of which Glenmary's Holy Redeemer mission is an active member. The event is also supported by countless volunteers and donations.
"Ted and I took applications from the folks who needed the extra help," she says. "And we were able to hear people's stories and get a better understanding of the struggles and joys in their lives."
And she became acutely aware of one of the distinctions of Appalachian culture—it's an oral culture. Even though applicants filled out the paper forms, they also told their stories and took time to visit with Michele and Ted.
"It was really quite amazing and I was so touched by the whole experience," she says.
Project Merry Christmas was also a chance for Michele to work more closely with the other members of the local ministerial association, which is very active in the community.
Michele and Ted's family includes seven children and nine grandchildren—and two wire-haired dachshunds who have become very well known in Vanceburg.
The dogs were part of a pet show held at the local nursing home and a photo of the dogs at a pet blessing held as part of the mission's St. Francis of Assisi feast-day celebration was also featured in the local weekly newspaper.
"People who may not typically stop to talk with us, do stop and chat as we walk the dogs," she says. "It seems everyone in the community knows about the dogs and they have become an unexpected evangelization tool for us!"
Michele says she is still adjusting and adapting to life in rural America. A quilter, Michele has had difficulty finding a store to buy material. So, she started asking around to find out what others do and found that many people in the area make rag rugs which require using scraps of material. "So, I'm going to learn how to make rag rugs," she says. "It's all about adapting."
As the months progress in 2007, Michele says she hopes to begin some adult education with the help of Glenmary's Department of Pastoral Ministers and Pastoral Services (DPMPS).
"Liz Dudas from DPMPS is coming to talk to the parish about liturgical ministry and I want to follow up with sessions on the ministry of the assembly," she says. "Many folks are involved in ministry here but haven't had any formal training."
At the conclusion of Christmas Mass, Michele took the opportunity to thank those gathered for their ministry and for their welcome. Afterward, parishioners returned the thanks.
"They told us ‘we're happy you are here,'" Michele says. "That's a good feeling. We're so excited about what the future holds for us and most especially for this wonderful Catholic community."
This article originally appeared in the February 2007 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.