Torch Is Passed to Missions' Third Generation of Lay Leadership

Posted: 12/15/2011

Glenmary missions have unique histories. But the Mississippi missions in Bruce and Ripley may be the most unique: They were founded by lay professional ministers and are entering their third generation of being led and nourished by lay ministers. And the current leaders—Deborah Holmes, Vonda Tedford-Keon and Sigifredo Bonilla—have been raised up from their respective communities.

Past and present leaders of Bruce, Miss., missionSt. Luke Mission, Bruce

Since July 2011, Deborah and Vonda have served as the pastoral team at St. Luke the Evangelist mission in Bruce. Deborah, the pastoral coordinator, has been a member of the mission for seven years. Pastoral associate Vonda has been a member since the mission started in 1996.

As a Catholic child, Deborah visited relatives in Calhoun County and quietly attended a Baptist church with her aunt, never asking to be taken to a Catholic church many miles away.

She eventually moved to Calhoun County 21 years ago. Because there was still no Catholic church there, she joined a parish in Oxford about 30 miles from Bruce.

Deborah never dreamed there would be a Catholic Church in Bruce—and there wasn't until Glenmary hired Amy Giorgio in 1995 and she called together the county's first Catholic community.

Deborah had set down roots at the parish in Oxford, where her daughter attended religious education classes. But seven years ago she decided to join St. Luke and got to know Sister Mary Jean Morris, the mission's second pastoral coordinator.

"Finally, I had found a church home," Deborah says. "She would assign me little things to do." The more Sister Mary Jean asked, the more Deborah became involved. "And I loved it!"

Vonda and Deborah enrolled in and graduated from the Loyola Institute of Ministry Extension Program, a training curriculum for lay ministers. When Sister Mary Jean asked what field of ministry interested her, Deborah answered "parish administration." Sister Mary Jean replied teasingly, "You want my job!'"

It never occurred to Deborah that Sister Mary Jean would ever retire because, she says, it's easy to think that "someone you love will be there forever!"

When that day came in the spring of 2011, Deborah applied for the position and was later hired as the third lay minister to serve as the mission's pastoral coordinator.

Sister Mary Jean describes Deborah's passion for her work, saying her gift is reaching out to people who fall between the cracks. "She's very determined and generous with her time," according to Sister Mary Jean.

Glenmary's lay pastoral coordinator program assures a Catholic presence in Calhoun County. "In this rural area of northeast Mississippi, several counties wouldn't have a Catholic presence if not for Glenmary," Deborah says. "Lay ministers help hold people together as a faith community."

Father Tim Murphy travels 36 miles one way from Pontotoc to Bruce to celebrate two Masses each month with the members of St. Luke the Evangelist. On alternate Sundays, Deborah leads Word and Communion services, something she began easing into before Sister Mary Jean retired. "Every day I get a little more comfortable," she says.

Past and present mission leaders, Ripley, Miss., mission St. Matthew Mission, Ripley

The lay pastoral coordinator program is also responsible for the vibrant Catholic community in Ripley.

Founded by Polly Duncan Collum in 1997, St. Matthew mission was led by pastoral coordinator Sister Kate Regan from 2000 until her retirement in April 2011. Since then, Sigifredo Bonilla, who served the parish as a multicultural worker for 11 years, has assumed leadership.

Sigi credits Sister Kate for teaching him the gift of flexibility in ministry and says he finds the quality valuable because of the diversity of his congregation.

About 20 percent of the congregation are English-speaking; the remaining 80 percent are Spanish-speaking, but represent a variety of nationalities and cultures. Despite the differences, Sigi uses things community members have in common to blend the community together.

"If we don't work together, we're condemned to be alone," Sigi says. "We share the love of God. It's important for people to be together." This, too, he says, he learned from Sister Kate.

Missionary Spirit Continues

Deborah, Vonda and Sigi have brought a special grace to their ministries as members of their respective missions. With membership comes a familiarity that can't be learned easily by someone from outside a community.

"The people know me and know they can talk to me," Deborah says. "They trust me as a fellow parishioner to help and listen, just as I've always done."

There is a definite missionary spirit in the Glenmary missions in Mississippi, Sigi says. "From Glenmary we've learned the Church is for everyone—minorities, needy people, those who are marginalized. Glenmary missions make the connection between sacraments and community life."

The Bruce and Ripley missions will return to the care of the Diocese of Jackson in the coming years as part of Glenmary's long-range plan, which will allow the society to move on to areas with no Catholic presence.

That doesn't mean Glenmary's influence will be gone from the area. Deborah says there are Catholic communities in this region of northeast Mississippi because of Glenmary. Catholics have been empowered and "we've gained charisms from Glenmary that we will carry on."

This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 Glenmary Challenge.