Missions Are Building and Many Are Coming

Posted: 6/1/2008

Putting a twist on the tagline from the film Field of Dreams, Judy Clements describes Sunday mornings at Glenmary's Holy Family mission in Lafayette (La-FAY-ette), Tenn., as "Stuff your building full and even more will come!" The small church in Middle Tennessee, near the Kentucky border, holds a maximum of 100 worshipers; on most Sundays folding chairs accommodate the overflow.

Glenmary Father Dennis Holly pastors the Lafayette mission in Macon County, as well as the mission in Scottsville, Ky., creating the unique pastoral situation of pastoring two missions in two different states and dioceses.

Lafayette is in the Diocese of Nashville, Tenn., and Scottsville, 20 miles away, is in the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky. Lafayette is located outside of Nashville in a region that has been called one of the fastest-growing regions in the South by The Tennessean, Nashville's daily newspaper.

Father Dennis, in addition to caring for the spiritual needs of each mission community, attending a plethora of meetings at both missions as well as in both dioceses and dealing with crises as they arise, is also overseeing the construction of new church buildings in each county.

A new church signifies that the mission community has grown and is now an established, permanent part of the greater community. But for small, financially-strapped Glenmary missions, the building of a new church is a struggle.

Glenmary has served Macon County since 2003 when Father Dennis became the first resident pastor of the already established Holy Family community. Glenmary chose Macon County, Father Dennis says, because of its growth pattern, its missionary need and its proximity to Scottsville, a mission Glenmary established in 1964.

That missionary need is illustrated by the 75 percent of Christians living in the county who claim no church affiliation. That is the highest percentage of any Glenmary county and makes Macon County one of the most unchurched counties in the Diocese of Nashville.

Holy Family's history dates to the early 1980s when Catholics began to gather weekly in a building that once belonged to a Church of God congregation. The building consisted of a basement with a roof; the Church of God congregation intended to "build up" as funds became available.

But the congregation dissolved before the building was completed and the "basement church" was sold to the Diocese of Nashville in 1982 for use by the local Catholic community. Before Father Dennis arrived Holy Family was served by diocesan priests who traveled 25 miles or more to celebrate Mass on Sunday.

"It was the determination of the people of the mission that held it together," when the mission had no resident pastor, says Judy Clements, a long-time parishioner.

"We've had some fine priests and a nun, who have served us," but it was the people of the mission who took leadership roles, including running the religious education programs.

"Many of us took CCD and RCIA training two or three times a week in Nashville to keep things rolling," Judy says. "It was tough, especially when we had small children, but we were determined and got the lay people accredited."

In Holy Family's 25-plus years, Sunday mornings have meant fellowship as well as worship, Judy says. She describes a recent Sunday morning when the need for more space was evident.

Following Mass people queued up in the back of the church's worship area, past the religious education space and outside the front door, talking and visiting as they slowly moved toward the doughnuts and coffee. Father Dennis sidled up to Judy and asked, "Do you think we need a new church?"

Judy calls Father Dennis "a real shot in the arm," and credits his low-key outreach into the greater community for the tremendous increase in membership in Lafayette. "He's brought people back (to the Church) and people that are unchurched are asking questions," Judy says. "My heart is with this parish and doubly with Father Dennis, who works so hard!"

To accommodate the growth, the Tennessee mission community is involved in a building plan with two phases.

With the assistance of the Diocese of Nashville, Holy Family purchased five acres of land a few miles from their current church and have built a new rectory, completing the first phase of their building plan. Phase two, construction of a church, will begin when the parish has the needed funding in place.

"The folks in Lafayette are a little envious of the people in Scottsville, where the (church) construction is farther along," Father Dennis says.

Members of Scottsville's Christ the King mission in Allen County broke ground on March 1 for their new church, a construction project that has been in the planning stages for 25 years.

That mission, too, is growing and currently has approximately 50 families attending Mass each week and 18 children enrolled in religious education classes.

Construction became a large part of life all over Macon County following a series of tornadoes on Feb. 5. In Lafayette, 200 houses were completely destroyed; another 300 were left uninhabitable.

"The local Hispanic community was especially affected by the storm," Father Dennis says. "Many were living in a trailer park and in substandard housing" which could not weather the high winds. The newly constructed rectory was left untouched.

When Father Dennis left his house in Lafayette on that morning to travel to Scottsville for Ash Wednesday Mass, he didn't realize the devastation the storms left in their wake until he saw that the most direct route to Scottsville was completely blocked with trees and storm debris.

He found the alternate route passable, but on his way he saw even more devastation. Eventually, Father Dennis learned that Macon County suffered 12 fatalities in the storm.

And, he learned of the deaths of the Rev. Michael Welch, pastor of the Lafayette United Methodist Church, his wife, Julie, and two of their three children. The family was delivering relief supplies to tornado victims when they were killed in an auto accident outside Lafayette.

As the Macon County community mourned the loss of the Welch family and reached out to members of the Methodist church, they also came together to assist families that had lost their homes. The Catholic community was part of that effort, assisting with clean-up and providing lunches for workers.

While bricks and mortar might be the tools for building new church buildings, Father Dennis says that evangelization is the tool for building the community. And that's a message he continually delivers to the members of both his missions.

"People see evangelizers as ‘at your door and in your face,'" Father Dennis says. "I tell people that I'll never ask them to go up to the house of a stranger." Instead, he says, evangelization takes place informally, as Catholics witness their faith to their friends and neighbors in their everyday lives.

The first step in effective evangelization, he says, is for Catholics to be more comfortable with their faith and with sharing that faith.

"People think they find that in a book, but they'll find it here," Father Dennis says, pointing to his heart. He says that the more grounded people feel in their own faith, the more likely they will be to share it with others.

In the five years that Father Dennis has lived and worked with the folks in both of these mission areas, he has seen growth and success. But looking to the future, he also sees much work to be done.

"We'll continue to earn the right to serve Macon and Allen counties by being a part of the community," Father Dennis says.

And both mission communities will continue to build both physical structures and most especially, the Kingdom of God. After all, if they build it, many will come.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2008 Glenmary Challenge.