The Journeys of Two Missions (Part 1)
By Dale Hanson
When Glenmary Father Vic Subb contemplated becoming a mission pastor again in 2012 after seven years away from this role, he was excited and happy. Now, three years later, he says that “getting to know the people in the mission areas has been a real joy. And God has been with us.” In turn, parishioners have a great deal of regard and respect for their new pastor—as well as the other missioners and Glenmary students who have served them.
On Sep. 1, 2012, Father Vic and Brother Larry Johnson became members of the new Glenmary team serving in Lafayette, Tenn. (Macon County); Celina, Tenn. (Clay County); and Scottsville, Ky. (Allen County). The Scottsville mission has since been returned to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Owensboro.
“There’s great mission need in both Macon and Clay counties,” said Father Vic.
This issue’s story will focus on Macon, with a Spring 2016 feature on Clay.
Fewer than 1 percent of Macon County residents are Catholic, and the Lafayette mission also draws members from four other counties—including three with no Catholic churches. In addition, more than 24 percent of Macon residents live below national poverty level, and over 74 percent have no religious affiliation.
In Lafayette, a few Catholic families first gathered in the 1980s in a small basement church, and parishioners were served by visiting diocesan priests during the next two decades. Then Glenmary Father Dennis Holly came as resident pastor of Holy Family mission (2003-2012), using that same small basement space. Since Father Vic arrived, the mission has continued facing the good problem of how to accommodate its steady growth: from 230 to 300 members. It’s now Glenmary’s largest mission.
“A new church building is probably our most urgent need. We can’t serve many more members without one,” Father Vic said. “I’m amazed at how much our parishioners have sacrificed and worked to raise the needed funds. The property has been acquired, we’re working with the diocese, and plans are in progress.”
But he stressed that the ongoing priority is to “keep building ourselves up as a strong, loving, welcoming faith community that reaches out to others. When we live out our faith, we’re also evangelizing and sharing the Gospel message.”
The diverse community of English-speaking and Spanish-speaking members celebrate an English and a Spanish Mass each Sunday (about half at each Mass); a weekday liturgy; and holy-day, First Friday and First Saturday Masses. With their bilingual pastor, they also celebrate religious feasts, traditions and holidays of their native cultures.
“One outstanding parish strength,” said Father Vic, “is our religious education program—with trained Anglo and Latino catechists teaching about 65 children.”
Many children and adults have prepared for and received sacraments for the first time. And adult faith formation has included RCIA, Scripture studies, Joy of the Gospel, evangelization, and What Catholics Believe programs. In addition, a three-day Latino leadership program helped people prepare to take on more parish responsibilities and improve their skills as family members. Parishioners are also enthusiastically participating in training as catechists, eucharistic ministers, lectors, ushers and servers.
At the same time, mission members and missioners are reaching out to others in need in many ways, the pastor said. “Macon is the leading tobacco-producing county in the United States. But there’s a lot of poverty here, and people with tremendous needs.”
Holy Family Ministries is an initiative to raise funds and supplies to assist local people. “We think it’s very important to give back,” said Linda Coletti, a longtime committee member. Their projects include Coats for Kids (51 coats for students in 2014); Thanksgiving food baskets/Christmas food baskets, each for 30 households (primarily seniors); a Christmas Angel Tree (four presents each for 50 children); and varied emergency assistance.
As an active member of the local ecumenical ministerial association, Father Vic also cited ways the mission community reaches out through this ministers’ group. For instance, the mission donates money to the association’s benevolence fund to assist transients; the homeless; and Macon Helps, a service organization. Mission members also take part in local ecumenical prayer services as well as Easter and Thanksgiving services. In addition, the mission has given clothes remaining from its yard sale—as well as those donated by its sister parish (St. Raphael in Oshkosh, Wis.)—to migrant tobacco workers. And the recently established parish youth group has done service projects such as home and yard clean-up for local residents. Also, parishioners participate in the annual Relay for Life Walk to fight cancer.
In Father Vic’s view, the two-year-old Knights of Columbus mission chapter has been a great support to the parish. Grand Knight John Boxold explained that “the K. of C. is the pastor’s right hand. Whenever volunteers are needed, we are committed to being there to help.” They also hold fundraisers to benefit mission efforts.
Brother Larry Johnson was elected as second vice president of Glenmary in June. He’s now juggling multiple roles and responsibilities while splitting time between Lafayette and Cincinnati Headquarters. “We try to support one another as fellow team members,” said Father Vic.
In Lafayette, Brother Larry is still assisting with the mission’s music ministry, youth group, and Vacation Bible School (VBS) as time allows. And he’s responsible for disseminating money donated by an anonymous priest from another diocese, who has an admiration for Glenmary. “I rely on Father Vic, as well as local agencies and others, to help identify people with pressing needs for financial help,” said Brother Larry. “I’m also funding outreach work by the Macon County ministerial association and Celina-area churches.”
The VBS was coordinated the last three summers by the Jesus the Good Shepherd Parish youth group from Owings, Md. “They’ve done a wonderful job of outreach to children from the mission and larger community,” Father Vic said. “They also transport the kids, including those from other counties. In 2015, 111 children came!”
And then there are Father Vic’s many personal ministries. He has gained a widespread reputation for unremitting kindness, caring, concern and communication, contributing to the mission’s welcoming environment and outreach. In addition, he regularly visits homebound parishioners, those in nursing facilities, and other mission members in their homes, as well as jail inmates and migrant workers. He also makes time to help many area immigrants complete legal paperwork as they work toward permanent residency. Guadalupe Franco echoed other mission members’ sentiments when she said, “We feel welcome here, like part of a family. Also, Father Vic has that way of talking to, reaching and helping everyone. He’s a really friendly priest and can’t say no to anyone. He visits migrant workers and prisoners. And he takes time to visit homes, including ours. Our whole family feels good about being here.”
Father Vic visits the Macon County Jail weekly, celebrating Mass and administering sacraments to inmates—as well as talking with, praying with and blessing them. “We try to support them after they’re released, too,” he said, “so they can get reconnected to the community.”
He also regularly travels to eight migrant worker camps near area tobacco fields—and searches for more. “I believe we have to be a lifeline for them,” he said. “First and foremost, I go to see if they’re okay, because there’s a lot of sickness in the camps. Mission members have been very willing to transport migrant workers to doctor appointments or other destinations when farm owners don’t.
“Their workday runs from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. So when I visit, there is usually time only for brief conversations, prayers and blessings. But I also invite them to go on field trips on off days so they can see things besides tobacco fields and Walmart.”
Looking ahead, Father Vic said, “One of Holy Family mission’s blessings is our diversity of backgrounds and ages. If we keep striving to be a unified, loving community that reaches out to others, we’ll be successful in our future efforts and will keep witnessing to the joy of the Gospel, as Pope Francis says.”
This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 Glenmary Challenge.