VP Takes on Part-Time Home Mission Ministry

Posted: 10/17/2016

Father Neil Pezzulo baptizes baby at Hazard, Ky., parish.

When Glenmary missioners have a decision to make, they begin with discussion, prayer and discernment. Deciding whether to move to a new mission territory? Discussion, prayer and discernment. Electing a new Glenmary executive council? Discussion, prayer and discernment. Issuing a statement on economic justice, racism or ecumenism? Discussion, prayer and discernment. 

Largely thanks to this time-tested process, a Glenmary priest/vice president is now using part of his time to serve three eastern Kentucky mission parishes, helping enable them to continue providing a Catholic presence in the region.

This outcome grew out of some hard questions Glenmary’s three-person executive council asked themselves about the time required for their administrative tasks. “We decided that the two vice presidents could do the needed administrative work in half the time allotted, and that we could devote the rest of the time to mission work,” said first vice president Father Neil Pezzulo. (Note: The other two current executive council members are the president, Father Chet Artysiewicz, and the second vice president, Brother Larry Johnson.)  

Father Neil knew that, realistically, he could work in territories within a five-hour drive of Glenmary’s Cincinnati headquarters. These territories include the home mission dioceses of Lexington (Ky.), Knoxville (Tenn.), and Owensboro (Ky.), as well as the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. In any of these places, Father Neil could take fill-in or regular assignments.

He joked that when he met Bishop John Stowe of the Lexington diocese, he offered to work in eastern Kentucky and said, “Call me Wednesday afternoon and tell me where to go.” As it turned out, the bishop’s diocese did have a pressing need for help.

While the Glenmary council members’ discernment was going on in Cincinnati, discernment had also started at the Catholic parishes in Hazard, Jackson and Campton, Ky., after they learned that the Franciscan priests and brothers who had served there since 1962 would be leaving.

Glenmary Father John Rausch, a longtime eastern Kentucky resident, knew the three-parish “cluster” could be served by one priest with the assistance of lay ministers and deacons who could provide the ministries needed on a day-to-day basis. For several months, Father John worked to identify ministers—starting with Pat Riestenberg, who has worked at Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Hazard (Perry County) since 1990. She’ll continue her service as parish life director, working with Deacon John Coe, who will live in Hazard but will serve all three parishes. 

At Holy Cross Parish in Jackson (Breathitt County), parish life director Joshua Van Cleef will continue in his five-month-old role; he’ll be joined in ministry by Ellen Salmi after they marry in spring 2017. Meanwhile, Franciscan Sister Susan Marie Pleiss will serve as parish life director at the Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Campton (Wolfe County), where she’s worked since 2014. 

Since August, Father Neil has traveled to Hazard late each week, then to Jackson on Saturday afternoon to celebrate a vigil Mass. On Sunday, he drives to Campton for 9 a.m. Mass and back to Hazard for 11:30 a.m. Mass. On most Mondays, he’ll celebrate Mass in Hazard and then return to Cincinnati.

All three parishes sacrificed to make the cluster ministry work, Father Neil said. The Hazard parish went from two Masses to one and moved it to a later time, so Father Neil could make the 50-mile trip from Campton to Hazard on Sunday morning. The Jackson parish agreed to the vigil Mass, and the Campton parish made its Mass time earlier.

“I’m here to serve, but I don’t even know what I don’t know yet,” Father Neil told Hazard’s Mother of Good Counsel parishioners, who attended an after-Mass gathering on his third Sunday in the Kentucky missions.

“Glenmary is here to serve Catholics and the entire community,” he said. In the same way that Glenmary serves its mission areas, Father Neil and the three parish ministry teams will reach out to the larger communities through social justice, ecumenism and evangelization efforts. In addition, he has asked parishioners to expand those outreach ministries by participating in this work themselves. “I couldn’t do it all, even if I was here all the time,” he told them.

The combined six-person ministry team in the Perry/Breathitt/Wolfe-counties cluster has support from Glenmary and Bishop Stowe. The silent partner is the technology that enables Father Neil to communicate with people in Cincinnati when he is in Kentucky and vice versa. It also allows him to work on administrative tasks when he’s in Hazard and on mission tasks when he’s in Cincinnati. “I’ve done that a number of times,” he said.

Cooperation and flexibility is the name of the game.

In early 2016, members of the Hazard, Jackson and Campton Catholic parishes were nervous about what would happen to their faith communities after the loss of the Franciscans. But now—thanks to a willingness on the part of Glenmary and the Lexington diocese to expand their vision of ministry, and thanks to Father Neil and the ministry teams’ invitation to parishioners to get involved in outreach—they can see that their parishes will continue to be a vibrant presence in their larger communities.

This article first appeared in the October 2016 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.