Arkansas Mission the 'Place to Be'
When Father Chet Artysiewicz arrived in Monticello, Ark., in 2000 to pastor the Glenmary missions there and in nearby Warren, his predecessor, Father Dan Dorsey, told him to expect the unexpected. One day the "unexpected" showed up when a couple-she a Baptist and he a Muslim-arrived at the church asking to become members.
"They had explored the Catholic Church in Eureka Springs (in the northern part of Arkansas) and decided they wanted to be a part of our faith community at St. Mark," Father Chet reports. "I found out that that's the kind of thing Father Dan was talking about." Father Chet found that, for reasons he can't explain, people often gravitate to the church in Monticello, seeking answers that will bring them closer to God.
For example, the death of Pope John Paul II and the subsequent news coverage of the funeral and the conclave resulted in a heightened curiosity about the Catholic Church for many people. A resident sought out St. Mark Church and asked about "a class for beginners," and so Father Chet referred him to the parish RCIA program. "We usually have three or four new Catholics come in at Easter," Father Chet says, but adds that attracting new Catholics isn't an exact science. "I wish I knew what the formula is," he laughs. "If I did, I'd bottle it!"
One of the secrets could be the type of low-key evangelization that is practiced with St. Mark's annual International Dinner. What started out as purely social has become a popular event that Catholics and non-Catholics attend together to enjoy the diversity of the ethnic communities in the county. Monticello is home to the University of Arkansas-Monticello and many who settle in the area are associated with the university.
The 2005 International Dinner featured several Hispanic cultures, the Philippines, Louisiana Cajuns, Italy, Germany, Poland and Soviet Georgia. "We even had some Middle Eastern cuisine this year," Father Chet says. "All that food made you sorry you only have one stomach!"
"There's an inclusiveness at St. Mark that celebrates the universality of our Church," Father Chet says, "and we can point to that as a mark of our local church."
While the Monticello parish includes a diverse population, the mission in Warren (about 18 miles away) is made up almost entirely of Hispanic families, some of whom have lived in Warren for many years-long enough to have children grow up and graduate from college.
The churches in Monticello and Warren are often filled to overflowing, Father Chet says. The Monticello parish, therefore, planned an expansion program in two parts: In 1998, they completed construction of additional classroom space for the parish. The second part of the project was intended to replace the church that was constructed by the Glenmary Brothers Building Crew in 1985.
"When I first came here," Father Chet says, "people started asking me, ‘Are we ready for Phase II?'" Mystified, he would say, "Is that some kind of soap?" But he soon found that "Phase II" was parishioners' shorthand reference to a larger church and the ongoing project to raise money for its construction.
Phase II experienced a setback when the parish found that construction would cost $125 per square foot rather than the $100 they planned. Despite the need to raise additional funds, St. Mark is steadily moving toward its goal.
Although the mission in Warren is also in need of a larger church, Father Chet says they struggle financially. However, when the parishioners aren't able to make financial contributions, they are always willing to give of themselves to "make things happen" for the parish, he says.
For example, instead of taking pledges to meet their obligation toward the Catholic Arkansas Sharing Appeal (a fund of the Diocese of Little Rock) the parishioners raised the funds by making and selling food.
"We have a core group there that works hard, and we need to get other people involved," Father Chet says.
"I've been told that in Mexico the church is supported by the state," he continues. "Culturally, therefore, people aren't used to having to make contributions. So we have to get across the idea that sacraments are freely given, but people are asked to make an offering for the support of the church."
Members of small missions tend to develop a greater sense of ownership in the parish, Father Chet says, and that ownership leads to a close relationship between the parishioners and the pastor. "The priest doesn't have family in the region and the people tend to become your family, but they get to know your foibles, too," he says.
In comments about small-town life for the Glenmary vocation Web site, Father Chet compares mission churches to early church communities: "The core values that are usually found in small towns touch and teach me. While sometimes criticized as ‘Mayberry, USA,' I think the world could profit from a few more Mayberrys."
Reminded of this reflection, Father Chet says, "You can't go wrong quoting Mayberry!"
This article orginally appeared in the July 2005 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter. St. Mark Church has been returned to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Little Rock.