In New Mission Areas: Glenmarians Build Relationships With Those They'll Serve

Posted: 8/2/2011

east tennesee mission mapSince Father William Howard Bishop founded Glenmary Home Missioners in 1939, its missionary charism has been to go out to the rural, remote U.S. county where there is no Catholic church community, call together and build up a mission community till it can stand on its own—then return it to the local diocese and move on to the next mission county.

This summer, Glenmary will open three new mission areas in the Diocese of Knoxville—in rural and remote Grainger, Union and Unicoi counties, in the Appalachian foothills of East Tennessee.

As "true messengers and servants of God among God's people," in Father Bishop's words, Glenmary missioners have now been serving the spiritually and materially poor in U.S. rural areas for over 70 years. And they've established and turned back over 100 missions to dioceses for continued pastoral care. But today, over 350 counties still have no Catholic Church presence or no Catholic community. So Glenmary's home mission ministry is as important as ever, and the work continues.

"There are many needs in these Tennessee counties," said outgoing president Father Dan Dorsey earlier this year. "We hope that by using a team ministry approach, we'll be able to help meet those needs as we bring the gifts of the Church to these areas." The counties' populations include both English- and Spanish-speaking Catholics.

Besides having no resident Catholic Church presence, these counties have few Catholics, and approximately 18 percent of county residents live below the national poverty level. There are few mainline-denomination churches, but there are many nondenominational and evangelical congregations and people without church homes. According to some local residents, misconceptions about Catholicism are sometimes accepted as truth.

Father Steve Pawelk will pastor in Grainger and Union counties, working with Brother Craig Digmann and Brother Joe Steen, who will both provide outreach ministry.

Meanwhile, Father Tom Charters will pastor in Unicoi County, and Brother Tom Sheehy will be the other mission team member, focusing on outreach ministry.

These pastoral teams will start their new assignments this summer as they begin to establish themselves, getting to know the culture and people. They will be a bit of a novelty at first, recognized as new to the counties and as "Catholic."

After finding places to live, the teams will call together a community in each county by knocking on doors and holding gatherings to introduce themselves to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

As soon as a core group of Catholics is organized, attention will turn to finding a gathering place—a storefront building or other available space. And missioners and parishioners will begin building up a strong, welcoming faith community that strives to make itself known through outreach and service to neighbors.

Another major goal for missioners is to develop relationships with people in each county, through other churches and community groups. One key is getting acquainted with other ministers and joining the area ministerial association, if there is one. Community outreach programs are often the result of a ministerial association's call for collaboration among congregations.

Sometimes other ministers are leery of a new minister's arrival. Deacon Bob Laremore, who served as pastoral coordinator of Glenmary's mission in Moulton, Ala., said he reassured a group of ministers by telling them he "wasn't a sheep stealer, but just wanted to help persons in need and help bring unchurched people to Christianity."

Missioners also get directly involved in the larger community. Sister Mary Jean Morris, former pastoral coordinator of the Bruce, Miss., mission, once commented that "some of the message I share is in my words on Sunday. But a lot of it is in what people see me do and what's said about me. As a Glenmary missioner, I serve the mission community and the people of the county."

Through her and the mission community's outreach work—including home and hospital visits, ministry to migrant workers, establishment of a food pantry for the county and more—they became widely known in the area. Her involvement even included a long stint on the local chamber of commerce board, one of many ways missioners have impacted counties they serve.

The new Catholic "preachers" often use local media to educate the larger population about basic Catholic beliefs through newspaper articles or radio programs. Many stereotypes are broken down through these outreach efforts-as well as by simply being seen eating at local restaurants, taking time to visit with residents (Glenmarians call this "porch sitting"), or going to the post office each day and starting conversations with whomever they meet.

In the end, it's through the Catholic missioners' and mission members' outreach that people in poverty-stricken counties come to know and appreciate them. "Love the poor," Father Bishop wrote, "for they are God's influentials. Labor to supply their needs of body and soul. Our greatest success as toilers in God's vineyard will come through our labors for them."

As the missioners begin their challenging work in Tennessee, Glenmary's past ministry experiences—including their own—are touchstones for the future. According to Father Neil Pezzulo, Glenmary's newly elected first vice president and former pastor of four Arkansas missions, "The relationships we establish in our mission areas are what make our missions a success."

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.