The Journeys of Two Missions, Part 2
By Dale Hanson
Small mission, big hearts.
Those who read the first installment of this story know that, on Sept. 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.
Father Vic is very happy to be a mission pastor again after several years away from this role. “Getting to know the people in the mission areas has been a real joy, “ he said. And the parishioners readily express their regard for Father Vic as well as other missioners and Glenmary students who have served them.
“There’s great mission need in both Macon and Clay counties,” he said. This issue’s story focuses on Clay County.
Fewer than 1 percent of Clay County residents are Catholic, and the Celina mission also draws members from two other counties that have no Catholic church. In addition, more than 18 percent of Clay County residents live below national poverty level, and over 56 percent of them have no religious affiliation. While Holy Family in Lafayette is one of the largest Glenmary missions with 300 members, Divine Savior in Celina is among the smallest, with about 32 parishioners.
The small Celina church was built in 1985. And the congregation was served by a succession of missionary-order priests who visited once a week, until the Nashville-diocese bishop invited Glenmary to assume responsibility. “Since Father Vic came, he has made a big difference,” said longtime parishioner Pat Roberts.
About 25 Anglos (including many retirees) and seven Latinos now make up the congregation. What Father Vic said he has found at Divine Savior is a loving, close-knit group who are proud of their church, care about one another as a family, and also reach out to others in need. “They’re few in number, but they are very active in doing outreach work—there’s a high rate of involvement,” he said.
But their greatest need is growth. “We need to keep inviting people to join our congregation. It helps that our members are very involved and well known in the county. They have good reputations for helping others, and they’re great witnesses to their faith. That helps break down remaining stereotypes about Catholics, too.”
In the meantime, “One major goal has been to give our parishioners more attention and help build up the parish community,” said Father Vic. “I live in Macon County, but I visit Clay County on Saturdays and Tuesdays to celebrate Mass and minister in varied ways to our mission members.” He visits and administers sacraments to homebound people and those in nursing facilities and hospitals, as well as visiting other parishioners in their homes. “I also spend time those days doing other social outreach work in the larger community.”
To help parishioners keep growing in their faith and lay leadership, Father Vic has introduced well-received programs on Bible study, Lenten preparation, and The Joy of the Gospel as well as training sessions in eucharistic ministry—with lector and greeter workshops and, hopefully, a Year of Mercy program coming soon. Parish council meetings are held regularly, too.
In 2014-15, the mission offered a religious education and sacramental preparation program for the children. “A Glenmary student and two parishioners helped with their instruction. It was a really good, positive situation,” Father Vic said. “In May 2015, five children received first Communion and two of them were baptized, too.” Since then, two families with children have moved away. And because of scheduling challenges faced by the remaining two families with kids, he’s working to restart the program as a home-based one.
With Father Vic’s encouragement, the parish has also continued its potluck suppers after weekend Masses to socialize and build up the faith community. “For Mother’s Day, I fixed and brought a lasagna dinner, with the male parishioners bringing side dishes, to thank the mothers,” he said.
In the area of community outreach, the parish was doing much valuable work before Father Vic arrived—and has done even more since he came. Parish council president Richard Accurso remarked that “the majority of us are older, retired and have a little more free time. We’re very caring and willing to give back. Even though we’re few in number, other churches and community members know that if they need help, they can call on us.”
Both Richard and Pat Roberts also said parishioners and many community members love and respect Father Vic—because of his kindness, dedication and hands-on approach. And they believe those feelings have further enhanced local ecumenical relationships, despite the lack of a ministerial association. “He’s a wonderful person,” said Richard.
And Pat added that “by his example, Father Vic has inspired mission members to be even more active and involved.”
Along with several Protestant congregations, Divine Savior parishioners financially support and volunteer at the Second Harvest ecumenical food distribution program in Clay County. The distribution occurs four or five times yearly and assists 250-300 families in need each time. Ten or more mission members—about a third of the congregation!—usually come to help on these days, including Father Vic.
Parishioners also support and volunteer weekly at the ecumenical Grace Free-Meal Center, hosted each Tuesday by the local Methodist church. And Father Vic carries out his own ministry of presence, eating and talking with people who need a meal and a friendly ear. “I develop relationships with people by following up with them from week to week,” he said. In addition, the mission provides financial assistance to the community’s Meals on Wheels program.
And every Thanksgiving, Divine Savior parishioners work with other local denomination members to cook, pack and deliver Thanksgiving dinners for people in need—this past year, for 378 families.
At Christmas, Celina mission members support and attend an ecumenical Christmas party for local nursing-home residents that includes a free meal and gifts for everyone; have participated in an Angel Tree program by buying gifts for children in need; and this year gave a generous gift card to a local family in especially urgent need. These are just some examples of the many ways the parishioners give back to their fellow county residents.
In addition, Divine Savior Catholics have served local civic causes in the following leadership roles while earning even more respect: organizer of a major community heritage event; commissioner of the gas utility board; leaders of the local American Legion post and auxiliary; member of the organizing committee for the weekly free-meal program; and local librarian who’s a conduit for community information.
As mentioned in part 1 of this story, Brother Larry Johnson is now also Glenmary’s second vice president. He’s juggling multiple responsibilities and splitting time between the Lafayette-Celina area and Cincinnati Headquarters. “We try to support one another as fellow team members,” said Father Vic.
One of Brother Larry’s current roles is to disburse money—in Clay and Macon counties—that has been donated by an anonymous priest from another diocese who admires 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. “For instance, I’m helping fund the ecumenical outreach work of the Celina-area churches.”
Looking ahead to the Celina mission’s future, Father Vic says “we need to continue our prayers and faith formation programs, build up our parish community, do everything possible to make our mission a welcoming place, and encourage new membership. And we need to keep reaching out to the community around us as much as possible.
“It’s a great strength that our parishioners are so involved in helping other people in the county—and that they’re known as Catholics and respected for the way they’re living out their faith.
“We’ll just keep building on our strengths and our faith.”