'Fractured' Oklahoma Mission Emerges Stronger

Posted: 2/1/2010

Heavener, Okla., missionGlenmary Father Don Tranel moved to Arkansas in 2006 to take on two pastorates: one in Booneville where he lives, the other in Heavener, Okla., 60 miles away. During 2008-09, Heavener's Sacred Heart mission went through a major upheaval that "fractured the community," says Father Don. But incredibly, it has emerged stronger than before. Mission members say that's due in no small part to their pastor's steady, caring guidance.

Heavener was a dying frontier town in 2001 when a new chicken processing plant brought hundreds of workers, mostly Spanish-speaking and Catholic. And Glenmary soon began informally serving them.

In 2003, Glenmary and the Diocese of Tulsa moved ahead with a collaborative arrangement: Glenmary provided a non-resident pastor and the diocese hired resident pastoral associates-first a husband/wife team, then later a woman who replaced them in early 2008.

When Father Don came in 2006, he found "mission members in Heavener were welcoming, devout and very poor." Saturday became his day to administer sacraments and celebrate special events. Part of Sunday was spent celebrating Mass and providing religious education. Their gathering place was a former store with a leaking roof; about 90 people attended Mass. "I grew to love the people, and I developed close relationships with the families," he says.

The new pastoral associate was well liked by the members of the mission community and had a group of devoted followers. But in the summer of 2008, after personnel infractions, she was dismissed from her position by the diocese.

The pastoral associate and her supporters responded defiantly to her dismissal. When Father Don arrived at Sacred Heart the next two Sundays, the door had been barricaded by this dissident group. His response was to kick it open—"We weren't going to be prevented from celebrating Mass," he says.

Also, the dissidents were outside the church both days, telling mission members they shouldn't go to Mass and engaging in occasional shoving matches. Out of sympathy or fear, most stayed away, and only about five people attended.

It was in this heated atmosphere that Father Don's calm, steadying influence and positive message became major factors. He didn't condemn anyone or overreact, he says, but "I constantly affirmed the mission members who stayed for their faithfulness to the authentic Catholic Church." And he repeatedly shared Scripture passages to reinforce his message.

The tide began to turn. By the third week, there were 20 at Mass, and the number climbed gradually.

Bishop Edward Slattery of the Diocese of Tulsa held a town hall-type meeting in an effort to reach out to everyone involved. In addition, the diocese sent a Hispanic priest once a month to concelebrate and preach. "The bishop and diocese treated the people with genuine respect and concern," says Father Don.

As members returned and were reconciled with the Church, they expressed their remorse. Even some dissident leaders came back.

"By mid-2009 we had come full circle," Father Don says. "We're better and stronger now. The church has been filled at Mass-with about 120 people and a new energy. The people have seemed more aware than ever that their faith is a privilege and not a convenience. Also, the lay leaders have been even more willing to take ownership."

All these changes set the stage for the Heavener mission's unified, reverent, joyous celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe Dec. 12. "It was unique and amazing," says Father Don. The diocese even lent the mission an authentic replica of Juan Diego's mantle-with the image of Our Lady-for their novena and procession.

The people had prepared for many months, holding food sales to cover expenses such as roses, decorations and more. That morning, Father Don arrived at 5 a.m. for mañanitas (morning praise)-and was "shocked and touched" to see the church already filled with people, with more outside...all 300 ready for a day of prayer, singing and celebration.

Most important to Father Don was that "the Sacred Heart community truly expressed thanks and celebrated their return to unity and harmony."

Just two weeks later, when Father Don couldn't travel through the snow to celebrate Christmas Mass in Heavener, "Over 90 mission members gathered on their own for a prayer service," he says, "with lay leaders reading Scripture and the choir leading hymns. It was a perfect example of their initiative and dedication to their faith."

For the future, the mission has been given a second run-down building next to the one they are presently using. Father Don says members will gradually pay back the diocese for a roof-repair loan and renovate the second structure for needed space." They know their faith is a privilege," he says, "and they're willing to work for it."

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.