Tennessee Catholics: Led by the Spirit

Posted: 6/5/2012

The Spirit is at work in two of Glenmary's newest missions, bringing local folks together and leading them as they establish the first-ever Catholic communities in Union and Grainger counties in East Tennessee.

Story and Photos by Dale Hanson

Glenmary Father Steve Pawelk at a new mission in East Tennessee"God was busy here before we were," says Glenmary Father Steve Pawelk, in reflecting on what's happened in Union and Grainger counties in East Tennessee since Aug. 12, 2011. That day, he and Brother Craig Digmann drove into the Union County seat of Maynardville to establish the first-ever Catholic presence in these counties. Brother Joe Steen arrived in September to complete the mission team.

"Brother Craig and I came with just a folding table and chairs, sleeping bags, air mattresses and some personal belongings," Father Steve says.

But soon, two Glenmary storefront missions had sprouted up in these rural Appalachian counties, where fewer than 1 percent of the population are Catholic and over 18 percent live below the national poverty level.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta mission in Maynardville (Union County) and Blessed John Paul II mission in Rutledge (Grainger County) have become gathering places for two very grateful, enthusiastic, involved Catholic communities that didn't exist 10 months ago.

"Our being here is part of God's plan," Father Steve says. "The people like to give credit to me, Brother Craig and Brother Joe. But what's been happening here is because of the people's faith and the Holy Spirit working in their lives. My greatest prayer is to stay out of the way of the Spirit."

Father Steve and Brother Craig held organizational meetings for Catholics in both counties soon after they arrived. "Many said our arrival was the answer to years of prayers," Father Steve says. "Several people were near crying tears of joy."

Father Steve Pawelk, Brother Craig Digmann, Brother Joe SteenLocal folks are still learning about Catholics. Before the missions started, many didn't know there were Catholics in the counties other than Latino Catholics in Grainger County. While some people have been less than welcoming, the majority—including some ministers and congregations in both counties as well as Union County's mayor and Chamber of Commerce—have befriended the new Catholic communities.

During the early days in Union County, the missioners held two BYOC ("Bring Your Own Chair") Masses in their rental home's carport. The Catholic congregation also used the worship space at the local Methodist church on several Sundays. And in Grainger County, monthly Spanish Masses were celebrated at the agricultural building.

In late September, a storefront in Maynardville (a former storage shed and hot dog stand) was rented to serve as the mission's first church home. Brother Joe, using his extensive construction experience, led the renovation with help from many mission members.

Rutledge (Tenn.) storefront missionThen on All Saints Day (Nov. 1), not only did members of the Maynardville mission community celebrate the first Mass in their newly finished space, but a second storefront was rented in Rutledge.

A few days later, with much renovation to come, members of the Rutledge congregation cleaned their new space and Maynardville (Tenn.) storefront missiongathered there for the first time for weekend Masses.

Janet Thrower, a lifelong Catholic and member of the Rutledge community, says she feels "more holiness in this [storefront] building than any other church."

Today, each growing community celebrates two weekend Masses. In Union County, about 50 people attend English Mass and 40 attend Spanish Mass; in Grainger County, about 25 people attend English Mass and 80 attend Spanish Mass. And each mission has a midweek bilingual Mass that has helped unify the people. To attend Mass in the past, these Catholics had to drive 35-75 minutes, one way, to churches in neighboring counties.

Father Steve and the Rutledge mission community are also exploring how they can best serve the Spanish-speaking migrant workers employed each year, May through August, at Grainger County tomato farms. As one example, an additional mission Mass could be added during those months to accommodate the increased number of Catholics.

Faith formation programs for youth and adults are also thriving in both missions. "The desire for the sacraments is overwhelming," Father Steve says. And the Knoxville diocese has provided "wonderful support," including on-site teacher training to help members of the Catholic communities become catechists.

Michael Cattafi, a Maynardville mission member, says, "It's great to be a real part of this church and help it start from nothing and flourish."

The Glenmarians say they take a team approach to their ministry. "We live together, pray together three times daily and discuss our experiences. Our prayer is the root of our blessings," says Father Steve. All three have been actively involved in ministries and outreach in both mission counties.

"We support one another and keep each other focused," Brother Joe adds. With major worship-space renovations almost complete, he's now doing more outreach in the larger community—starting with construction of a deck for a wheelchair-bound local resident. "Brother Joe has done great work, and he brings joy wherever he goes," Father Steve says.

He describes Brother Craig's outreach as "phenomenal," especially his home visitations to Catholics and non-Catholics. Brother Craig also visits senior centers, nursing homes, a local high school and more. "I like to walk with people in their struggles and offer hope," he says. "Being part of this team establishing new missions is like a dream come true for me."

The team's ecumenical activities include praying regularly with ministers in both counties, as well as praying monthly with Union County ministers and community members to help end substance abuse and other social problems in the county. "We're all looking at the counties and doing our best to discern what God wants us to do," Father Steve says.

The presence of these two mission communities is impacting the lives of many local residents. For instance, during Christmas Mass at the Maynardville mission last year, 81-year-old John Stefanski received first Communion and confirmation.

"I was baptized and raised Catholic, but I never received the other sacraments and hadn't gone to church in a long time," he says. "I thought it was too late, but Father Steve said I could take classes with him. Now I even play harmonica in the music ministry—so I feel like I'm helping the mission get going, too. I feel good about being Catholic."

For Sara Armistead, who has multiple sclerosis and is partially homebound, the Rutledge mission is an answer to her prayers. A convert, she was welcomed into the Church on Easter 2012 when she received her first Communion and confirmation. But she actually started studying the Catholic faith independently three years ago and began praying, "Please, God, send me a church."

She describes the mission community as "a loving family," and says "the Glenmarians bring such joy. On Easter, my daughter said she'd never seen me so happy."

Major goals for a mission's first year, according to Father Steve, are for people to feel at home and needed—and to be active in ministry and fellowship. And that's happening in both counties. "Our mission members seem genuinely happy to be here, to be involved and to take on more responsibility."

Weekly bilingual MassLooking to the future, the missions "need to find more ways to be yeast in the larger community," he says. Members of the Grainger County mission currently help with quarterly government food distribution to people in need. In Union County, involved Catholics from Boy Scouts to civic event organizers are now being identified in the local newspaper as Maynardville mission members. "We'll just keep praying and looking for ways to reach out to others."

Maira Creech, a member of the Maynardville mission, offers her own simple, heartfelt prayer about her new Catholic community: "Thank you, Lord, for Glenmary."

This article appears in the June 2012 Glenmary Challenge.