Dayton (Ohio) Native Serving Home Missions as Glenmary Priest

Posted: 11/5/2012

by Dale Hanson
Assistant Communications Director
Glenmary Home Missioners

Glenmary Father Tom Charters with new mission members in Erwin, Tenn.The following article first appeared in the October 2012 Catholic Telegraph, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. It is being reprinted with permission.

Glenmary Father Tom Charters' current ministry as pastor of a new mission church in Unicoi County, Tenn., is the latest chapter in the Dayton, Ohio, native's 40-year history as a Glenmary Home Missioner.

Father Charters, 63, a son of the Cincinnati archdiocese, grew up as a member of Dayton's St. Joseph Parish and graduated from Chaminade High School. He first discerned the call to be a missionary priest during his teenage years, learning about Glenmary by reading Glenmary Challenge magazine. He has now pastored Glenmary missions in seven states.

Father Charters and Glenmary Brother Tom Sheehy had been serving West Virginia missions until those parishes were returned to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in 2011. That same year, the missioners moved to Unicoi County, an area where less than 1 percent of the population are Catholic and over 18 percent live below the national poverty level.

Since they arrived, Father Charters says, a few things have really stood out: "Neither of us has ever been so welcomed in a community. Also, our mission members are really enthusiastic and willing to take initiative. And I believe everything happening here is because of the movement of the Spirit."

The first time Father Charters drove into the county seat of Erwin last August, he says, he didn't know anybody. He had earlier sent introductory letters to some local Catholics and to parishes in neighboring counties, telling them Glenmary was invited by the Knoxville diocese to establish a Catholic church in the county. He later placed ads in local newspapers inviting those interested in starting a Catholic community to meetings.

On his second day in town he stopped at Erwin's bagel shop, where he met two Catholics—the store's co-owners. They were thrilled to see him. Father Charters remembers Keldon Clapp saying to his mother, Joyce, "We won't have to drive to Greene County for Mass anymore!" Area Catholics had gotten used to traveling to churches in other counties.

The Glenmarians' providential encounters with Catholics, ministers, and area residents are one way Father Charters says they've experienced the Spirit's workings. Local newspapers have also published three well-timed, positive articles. "Things have just fallen into place for us," he says.

Father Tom Charters celebrates Mass with the St. Michael the Archangel congregation at the local Elks Club in Erwin, Tenn.Beginning last September, the fledgling Catholic Community of Unicoi County (CCUC) had several organizational sessions. About 10 days before the first scheduled Sunday Mass in October, they arranged to rent the local Elks Club as a weekly gathering space. Since then, attendance at Sunday liturgies has grown from 40 to over 70. The pastor also celebrates Mass four days a week at a mission couple's home and once a month at the local nursing home.

The Knoxville diocese recently signed a contract to acquire a plot of land for the mission, now renamed St. Michael the Archangel. "Later on," says Father Charters, "we hope to raise money to build a church."

The mission community is made up of Anglos and Latinos, and the Masses "are bilingual to keep our community united," he says. He also initiated "Food and Faith" gatherings—informal weekly question-and-answer sessions on faith-related topics, open to all. "They've been a tremendous success; people really want to be there."

Local ministers have invited Father Charters to join the ministerial association, offered assistance and prayers, and welcomed mission members for community outreach efforts. For example, the Catholic community has been invited to ecumenical prayer services, and they were asked to help assemble and deliver Thanksgiving food baskets for area residents and prison inmates.

Mission members perform other outreach work, too. For instance, some parishioners—including Brother Sheehy—have organized a Knights of Columbus roundtable, which has coordinated projects such as a Lenten food drive and a firewood drive for the needy. And Brother Sheehy used his carpentry skills to build a wheelchair-access ramp for a family

As a key part of his outreach ministry, he also serves as construction committee chair and site supervisor for the local, ecumenical Habitat for Humanity.

In August 2012, Glenmary Lay Missioner Kathy O'Brien joined the mission team as pastoral associate. O'Brien is already ministering to Spanish-speaking mission members, area residents including youth, and migrant workers at nearby farms. In addition, she's establishing the mission's religious education program.

Looking ahead, Father Charters says that "experiencing the Spirit's presence makes us very optimistic about the future."

About Glenmary Home Missioners
Founded in 1939 by Father William Howard Bishop, Glenmary Home Missioners is a Catholic society of missionary priests and brothers who, along with coworkers, are dedicated to establishing a Catholic presence in rural areas and small towns of the United States where the Church is not yet effectively present.

Priests, brothers and coworkers minister in counties throughout the South and Appalachia where less than three percent of the population is Catholic, a significant number have no church affiliation, and the poverty rate is almost twice the national average. They are committed to nurturing the Catholic minority, serving the unchurched and poor, and fostering ecumenism.

Glenmary has established and/or nurtured 112 Catholic parishes to maturation and has returned them to the pastoral care of local dioceses. Currently, missioners and coworkers serve in missions and ministries in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Glenmary invites others to become partners in mission through their prayers and support. For more information about Glenmary, contact: Glenmary Home Missioners, PO Box 465618, Cincinnati, OH 45246-5618,, 513-874-8900.