Passion for the Faith...and a Home Mission Vocation

Posted: 2/16/2012

For the past six decades, Father Rollie Hautz has pastored Glenmary missions in Appalachia. His commitment to evangelization, and his love for the region and its people, are what motivate him to keep teaching and changing attitudes.

Glenmary Father Rollie Hautz ministering in AppalachiaBy Jean Denton

Father Rollie Hautz has served those living in Appalachian counties in Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia for the past 60 years as a Glenmary missioner. And for the last 13 years, he's pastored two Virginia missions—St. Bernard in Gate City and St. Patrick in Dungannon.

Glenmary first established a presence in southwest Virginia in 1945, and Father Rollie was one of the first missioners to serve the new mission area. He remembers cutting down some of the trees used to build the log church that still serves Dungannon!

Today, at 84, Father Rollie, the last Glenmary pastor in the Diocese of Richmond, continues his ministry of Catholic evangelization and conversion in the far reaches of southwest Virginia's Appalachian region.

"I'll stay as long as I'm healthy," he says. He serves about 50 households in the two church communities.

And most people in those parishes are Catholic only because Father Rollie brought them into the Church.

He'll tell you it was the Holy Spirit who captured their hearts, but the enthusiastic priest who cast a wide net of conversion across the region in the last half-century certainly had a hand in setting the stage.

"I give all the credit to the Holy Spirit," he says. "It's been a great ride and a real blessing for me."

For his part, Father Rollie, who first came to southwest Virginia in 1945 as a seminarian, served in Norton, established parishes in Coeburn and Lebanon, was pastor of Glenmary's mission in St. Paul, and for a number of years traveled throughout Dickenson, Wise, Russell and Scott counties holding revival-style gatherings where he preached from the back of a trailer.

The gatherings, he explains, took the form of a spiritual journey from Tuesday through Friday nights. "We began with the topic of faith, moved on to finding Christ in our lives, and then to finding Christ in the Catholic Church," he says.

The result was not only an increasing number of Catholics in the region, but also a dramatic lessening of anti-Catholic sentiment that permeated the region in the 1950s and 1960s.

Father Rollie's own spiritual journey closely tracks the mission of Glenmary Home Missioners, a mission that has contributed greatly to the development of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Richmond.

He was attracted to the society's charism of bringing a Catholic presence to the rural South and, most especially, Appalachia and entered Glenmary as a 16-year-old high school graduate, five years after Father William Howard Bishop established the home mission community in 1939. Father Rollie took the Glenmary Oath in 1951.

"I was a Cincinnati boy," he says. "I was from a city where there were a lot of big Catholic parishes. I wanted to go out to where the Church was not present and see what I could do about it."

Father Rollie said he first realized he had a desire to be a priest when he was a young boy. His mother had tuberculosis and, although she survived into her 80s, long periods of separation and worry while she was in a sanitarium led to his interest in matters of life, death and faith at a young age.

While a student at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, he read a magazine article about Glenmary's mission work in Norton, Va. After a subsequent interview with Father Bishop, Father Rollie committed to pursuing a vocation as a Glenmary missionary priest.

He entered seminary immediately after high school graduation. In 1953 his class of four priests was the first ordained from Glenmary's then-new Our Lady of the Fields Seminary.

While much of the Glenmary presence in Appalachia has taken the form of social ministry and social justice efforts in impoverished mountain communities, Father Rollie has concentrated on teaching the Catholic faith and growing and cultivating the Church.

"I still do social ministry work," he says, because the needs are so great. "But my thrust always has been teaching, conversion and changing attitudes."

In the process, he led the building projects of two churches. The first was St. Mary in Coeburn when he was only 25 years old. Two years later, while pastor of St. Therese mission in St. Paul, he led the effort to build a church for the Good Shepherd mission community in Lebanon.

He says he received help on both building projects from his father, Raymond, a retired jet aircraft inspector and "super handyman." Also, the sociable, inventive and energetic Father Rollie employed a sizable network of resources through friends and members of the local communities.

When constructing the church in Lebanon, he and parishioners built the steeple in the basement of the church in St. Paul and hauled it to Lebanon in the back of a dump truck that had been given to him by a friend. Father Rollie talked a local crane operator into hoisting the steeple into place on the church roof between his other scheduled jobs!

As the church was being built in Lebanon, an article in a neighboring Protestant church's bulletin described it as a "source of division" moving into the community.

A few years later, however, Father Rollie used the occasion of John F. Kennedy's presidential candidacy to discuss Catholicism with local ministers and their congregations "to show them they had nothing to fear."

During his traveling revivals in the summers of 1955 to 1967, he and two Glenmary sisters went door to door handing out flyers inviting children to daytime Bible school and adults to evening services. Each evening, using a fold-out painted wooden screen as a backdrop, Father Rollie would deliver a sermon and show an inspirational movie.

After a week of such gatherings, many attendees would show up at his mission in St. Paul for Sunday Mass, he says.

He preached in African-American as well as in white communities. Addie Cox, an African-American woman, followed his teaching intently, he remembers.

"She told me, ‘I'd like to be Catholic but I can't, because if I joined you'd never have another white convert.' I said, ‘Come on in.'" She did eventually convert, as did her daughter.

An especially memorable conversion experience occurred nine years ago when Terry Mead, now an active member of the Dungannon mission, decided to enter the Catholic Church. At the time, he was a Pentecostal evangelist.

"A friend of mine who I baptized in the Clinch River was studying with Father Rollie," Terry recalls. "One night Norm came to my house after meeting with Father Rollie and told me ‘You have to become Catholic.'"

Terry and Father Rollie began a series of discussions during which Terry sought answers for many long-held questions about Catholicism. The conversations were gratifying, Father Rollie says, because the two men share "an intense love for Scripture." Eventually Terry entered the Church.

St. Bernard parishioner Sally Kelly says she was already a Catholic when she retired to Gate City some years ago. "But as I became more acquainted with Father Rollie and saw his passion for the faith, I began taking instructions from him."

Will the Church be able to sustain itself in the region when Father Rollie leaves and the last Glenmary mission in southwest Virginia is turned over to the diocese for continued pastoral care?

"That's for sure," Father Rollie grins. "Glenmary started it all. But the people are very active and have a missionary thrust. The task is still not completed, though. Not even one-tenth of one percent of the population in this region is Catholic, but we have made a lot of strides and there's no longer so much antipathy toward the Catholic Church."

This story appeared in the Winter 2011 Glenmary Challenge. It is adapted from a story that originally appeared in The Catholic Virginian, the newsaper that serves the Diocese of Richmond, Va. It is used with permission.