Faith Gives Hope in Heavener, Okla.

Posted: 6/3/2011

Liturgy at Glenmary's Heavener, Okla., mission church

By Jean Bach

Each Sunday, the members of Sacred Heart Chapel in Heavener, Okla., gather as a Catholic community to celebrate their abiding faith and hope in God's providence through the sacraments and all things associated with their mission.

Aside from those celebrations, though, there isn't much to celebrate in Heavener itself. "It's basically a town that time forgot," says Father Don Tranel, pastor of Glenmary's missions in Booneville, Ark., and Heavener. "It's a very poor, isolated area of about 3,000 people who are, in many instances, struggling just to survive."

The mission has never had a resident pastor. This experience has instilled a sense of ownership and leadership in the mission members that Father Don says touches his heart.

"They know that being Church is a privilege and not a convenience," he says. "That privilege is very important to them and they are willing to work hard for it." They teach religious education classes, take people to the doctor, donate time to sweat-equity projects in the dilapidated storefront building, organize an outstanding choir and take care of everything else that needs to be done.

And the storefront building needs a great deal of care. Before the roof was replaced, rainy Sundays meant members of the congregation had to navigate—and empty—numerous buckets in the gathering space during Mass. The new roof also displaced the flock of pigeons that had made their home in the church. The worship space is filled with mismatched books, pews, statues and art that have been begged, borrowed or donated.

Since Father Don's arrival, the Spanish-speaking congregation has grown to about 130 people, although the number fluctuates based on the availability of work at the OK Foods poultry processing plant. Work at the Heavener plant is what drew immigrants from Mexico beginning around 2001.

Recently the plant discontinued its second shift, resulting in a layoff of a large number of employees, most of whom are members of Sacred Heart. Some residents had to move on to find other work, while others have remained, hoping the shift will be picked up again.

The congregation's growth necessitated more worship space, so local Catholics L.B. and Candy Hunt bought the building next door to the mission and donated it to the Catholic community. The Hunts were also the benefactors who purchased and donated the original storefront.

A wall dividing the two buildings has been mostly demolished by parish volunteers to allow for more seating. It's not a perfect arrangement, but it's better than having folks spilling out the front door onto the street!

A contractor has created plans to remodel the two buildings in order to better serve the community. The project calls for moving the altar, building a bathroom and classroom space—and perhaps even creating a space which could serve as living quarters for the priest.

The architect's rendering of the proposed renovation is proudly displayed by the front door for all to see as they enter the church. The project is seemingly unattainable, but the Catholics of this mission haven't lost hope.

Each week they continue to contribute what they can (Sunday collections average $60-$150), raise additional money through food sales ($40-$90 each Sunday) and hold an annual parish festival on the feast of the Sacred Heart.

"These folks at Sacred Heart lift themselves up through their faith," Father Don says.

Glenmary began serving this area of southeastern Oklahoma informally in 2000 when Father John Brown, pastor of the then-Glenmary mission in Idabel, Okla., began administering the sacraments in Heavener.

A pastoral team including Father Neil Pezzulo, pastor of Glenmary's missions in Waldron and Danville, Ark., served the mission until 2006 when Father Don became pastor.

Each Saturday and Sunday, he makes a 120-mile round trip over a rural two-lane road to celebrate the sacraments with the community.

Le Flore County, home to Heavener, is not unlike many of the counties Glenmary serves. Of the almost 50,000 residents, 20 percent live below the national poverty level and only 3 percent identify themselves as Catholic.

Employment opportunities in Heavener are limited, with many residents working at the poultry plant or in local rock quarries. Adults work long hours six days a week at physically challenging jobs just to make ends meet-and oftentimes, the ends don't meet.

Father Don describes his Spanish-speaking abilities as "limited." He celebrates Mass in Spanish and is able to carry on basic conversations but says the members of Sacred Heart help with the language barrier.

They know that "in my heart, I'm Hispanic," Father Don says. "What I bring to the table is that I care about them, I'm here for them and, most especially, the Church is here for them."

The Diocese of Tulsa, a longtime partner with Glenmary, helps the mission pay its utility bills and sends a Spanish-speaking priest to the mission at least once a month "so the folks can experience a really well-spoken homily," Father Don says.

Without Glenmary's efforts in the area, he says, it's very likely there would be no Catholic Church here and the faith that plays such a large part in the lives of these folks could not be nurtured

The Catholics at Sacred Heart mission are working toward and living in hope of better lives.

Their Catholic faith sustains their hope and promises-just as the Sacred Heart of Jesus does-that God will give them all the graces necessary for their state of life, console them in all their troubles, bless all their undertakings and be their refuge.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2011 Glenmary Challenge.