What Keeps Me Catholic? Glenmary

Posted: 7/10/2014

Farm drawing and motto.By Michael Daley

This column first appeared in the August 2013 issue of The Catholic Telegraph, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati (Ohio). It is being reprinted with permission.

For us who live in Cincinnati, there are still Catholic churches within a short drive (even walk) of our homes. Educational opportunities at the parish, high school, and college level are numerous. Summer brings an abundance of festivals. Lent ushers in a competitive line-up of fish fries. Many of our spouses, neighbors, coworkers and friends share the same faith tradition as us. And unlike other places, Catholicism is still very much a part of the social fabric of our city. For these and other reasons, it could be said that being Catholic in Cincinnati is "easy."

This experience stands in stark contrast to a place I recently visited on a mission trip with two other chaperones and 10 young men from Cincinnati St. Xavier High School—Lewis County and the city of Vanceburg, Ky. Though only 2½ hours away, it is literally a different world than "Catholic" Cincinnati. Fewer than 1 percent of the population are Catholic. As a result, though understanding and attitudes have vastly improved over the years, stereotypes and prejudices against Catholics still endure. With limited economic resources, an institutional Catholic presence—churches, hospitals, schools, social service agencies—is virtually nonexistent. As a result, practicing one's Catholicism is more difficult.

Thankfully, the people of Lewis County have had the Glenmary Home Missioners, who established a mission there—Holy Redeemer—in 1962. (Glenmary recently returned this mission to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Covington.) Founded in 1939 by Father William Howard Bishop and sponsored by Archbishop of Cincinnati John T. McNicholas, Glenmary is a society of priests and brothers dedicated to serving the spiritual and material needs of people living in mission counties throughout Appalachia and the South.

Guiding Glenmary's mission and ministry are three groups: the Catholic minority (Glenmary seeks to establish a Catholic presence where fewer than 3 percent of the local population are Catholic); the unchurched (those who have no religious affiliation); and the poor (Glenmary's missions are in places where the poverty rate is often twice the national average).

A vital part of Glenmary's ministry to the people of Lewis County is the Glenmary Farm, located in Vanceburg. For several decades now, it has served as the home base for countless mission trips. The name "Farm" may be a misnomer of sorts, though. As the longtime adage attributed to a Glenmary brother says, "We don't grow crops—we grow people." So highly regarded is the program that Catholic high schools, colleges, and parish youth groups come from across the country to spend a week in service to the community, engage in simple living, and open their lives up to extended reflection.

The week that I was there, we worked with People's Self-Help Housing (an organization that builds and renovates homes for low-income persons); Vanceburg Senior Citizens Center; Comprehend (a day care center for developmentally disabled adults); and the ecumenical Lending a Helping Hand Food Pantry and rummage store. We also did yard work for a local resident known as "Wild Woman."

The evenings were spent experiencing Appalachian culture through music, joining Holy Redeemer parishioners one evening for Mass, and attending a worship service at a local non-Catholic church. We concluded each day with a prayer service followed by silent reflection and journaling. By the end of the week, the sense of community we'd established amongst ourselves and the spirit of solidarity we'd created with the people of Vanceburg were very tangible.

In leaving, I was struck by a weathered sign on one of the Farm's buildings, which read: "The Farm—Peace Came and Stayed." The peace that Glenmary provides through the Farm and its other ministries throughout Appalachia and the South is what keeps me Catholic.

Daley is a freelance writer and teacher at Cincinnati St. Xavier High School.

Editor's note: The Glenmary Farm will close in December 2014. But the Glenmary Group Volunteer Program will continue in full force and spirit at its new site in Grainger County (Rutledge, Tenn.).

A celebration of the Glenmary Farm and its volunteers will be held on Saturday, Nov. 22, at the Farm in Vanceburg, Ky. Former volunteers and managers interested in attending should contact Jodi Mott at 800-935-0975.