Shared Challenges Spurred Priest's Ongoing Support of Home Missions

Posted: 5/4/2012

Msgr. Salvatore MitchellMsgr. Salvatore Mitchell, a priest in the Diocese of Erie (Penn.), became a pastor in 1954—an assignment that seemed "overwhelming" at the time, he says. At age 38, then-Father Mitchell was asked by his bishop to establish the first Catholic parish in rural West Middlesex, Penn., where Catholics were only a small percentage of the population.

It wasn't until the 1960s that he read about Glenmary Home Missioners, immediately recognized some parallels between his work and Glenmary's ministry, and became an admirer and later a supporter through regular donations and several annuities.

"Having been a founding pastor," says Msgr. Mitchell, 95, "I understood what Glenmary had to go through to get missions established and get them ready to return to their dioceses. And I knew the problems in their mission areas were more serious than mine. I figured if I could help them, I would. I think the work they do is tremendous."

Salvatore Mitchell was raised in the largely Catholic community of Sharon, Penn. He attended Catholic schools through his second year of college. Then, answering the call to priesthood, he entered the seminary and was ordained in 1942. He served as a Navy chaplain during World War II before returning to his diocese and working six years as an associate pastor. His experiences didn't fully prepare him for what he encountered in West Middlesex, a region that shared many characteristics of a Glenmary mission county.

"The Catholics were a very small minority there, and they were attending Mass in nearby towns," he says. "Most hadn't told people they were Catholic. So when I gathered a church community in 1954-55, it was the first time many of them knew who the other Catholics were."

One major reason they kept their religion to themselves, he says, was that anti-Catholic feelings were prevalent in West Middlesex at that time. "Some non-Catholics said our parish wouldn't last long. And as pastor, I didn't feel welcomed or get much cooperation from the larger community. It took a few years before I was even invited to join the local ministerial association."

The members of the new Good Shepherd parish first gathered for Sunday Masses in an old gym at the local high school. But in 18 months, parishioners had raised enough funds to build their own hall. "Other people's attitudes toward us gradually started to change," Msgr. Mitchell adds, "because they saw we were there to stay."

By the early 1960s, the Catholic community had also erected a church building. It was around this time that Msgr. Mitchell became aware of Glenmary through the home mission society's publications.

He started making regular contributions to Glenmary in 1971. "Their missions struggle to get started and grow," he says, "and I understand the challenges they face."

In 1970, he was asked to take on another building challenge. Under diocesan sponsorship and his supervision, a nursing care facility called the John XXIII Home was built to serve western Pennsylvania's Shenango Valley—the area where he has spent his life.

Msgr. Mitchell served as pastor of the now-established Good Shepherd Church for 36 years before retiring in 1991. At that point, he moved into an apartment on the campus of the John XXIII Home, where he still lives. At 95, he continues to celebrate Mass at area churches.

Because of his strong belief in Glenmary's mission and ministry, Msgr. Mitchell has established 12 annuities with Glenmary, including five with his sister. The annuities, he says, have also provided income in their retirement years.

Last year, while traveling to Louisville, Ky., he made a special stop in Cincinnati to visit Glenmary Headquarters. There he finally met some of the Glenmarians and coworkers whose work he has been supporting for over four decades.

"My uncle has lived his faith, not only through his work as a priest but also as a brother and uncle," says Msgr. Mitchell's niece, Sarah Potter. "He is devoted and generous to his family and to organizations such as Glenmary because he sees the good they do. What a great example of Christ's undying, unconditional love he has been."

This article first appeared in the Summer 2012 Planning Ahead newsletter.