Waiting for the Church to come
By Brother David Henley
Smith County, Tenn., established in 1799, has never had a Catholic church. The county has a population of more than 19,000 people and nearly 100 Christian churches, but it has no Catholic church. Additionally, the 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study found that nearly two-thirds of the county population don’t belong to any church.
In 1936, Father William Howard Bishop published A Plan for an American Society of Catholic Home Missions to Operate in the Rural Sections of the United States. “These millions of rural people are God’s creatures… They are hungering for the truths of the Gospel and they have a claim upon us.” From that plan was born the Home Missioners of America, founded by Father Bishop and now known as Glenmary Home Missioners. Since then, Glenmary has diligently followed Father Bishop’s plan to serve Mission Land, USA, but the task is not complete. Smith County, Tenn., and many other rural counties still do not have a Catholic church. Father Bishop knew that establishing a Catholic presence in these forgotten and neglected areas would not be a task that could be completed overnight. As he wrote, “It is a mammoth undertaking. Generations will be required to accomplish it.”
In 1938, he created his first map of “No Priest Land, USA” to demonstrate the tremendous mission need in our country. At that time, his map showed that out of the 3,000 U.S. counties, almost 1,000 lacked a resident priest. Glenmary has since served missions in nearly 125 rural counties. Catholic parishes in 14 states now exist because of Glenmary’s missioners. But Smith County, Tenn., and many other rural counties still do not have a Catholic church.
Today, there are nearly 1,000 U.S. counties whose Catholics comprise fewer than 3 percent of their populations. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on Catholic Home Missions reports that over 40 percent of U.S. dioceses are mission dioceses. That is to say, they “lack the resources to provide their faithful with basic pastoral care, including the sacraments, religious education and ministry training. Home mission dioceses often struggle with priest shortages, parishioner poverty, unemployment, difficult and isolated terrain, religious hostility and other circumstances that make it difficult to practice the faith.”
Glenmary realizes that, in U.S. Southern and Appalachian regions alone, 300 counties are still without a Catholic presence or resident Catholic minister.
St. Luke’s Gospel says, “‘The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.’” (Lk 10:2) If more men and women were serving as priests, brothers, sisters and lay coworkers, Glenmary’s mission efforts could extend to some of these underserved mission areas, bringing a Catholic presence to places where there has never been one.
The Acts of the Apostles explains that the early Church needed more “assistants” to serve those being “neglected” within their community. (Acts 6:1-7) Likewise, more are still needed today to serve in neglected mission areas.
On multiple occasions, Glenmary has been asked by bishops if it had a few missioners available to serve in rural mission areas of their dioceses. Unfortunately, at this time Glenmary does not have an abundance of missioners waiting to be sent off to the home missions. Glenmary missioners are currently serving in 12 different dioceses, but with more missioners, more mission counties could be served. Glenmary is also blessed to have 13 students preparing for priesthood and brotherhood, but that is not enough. There is room for more if they are willing to answer the call.
Although there is not a Catholic church in Smith County, Catholics live there. One family—Cleto Martinez and Guadalupe Franco and their children—drives an hour one way every Sunday to attend Mass in neighboring Macon County. Holy Family is the Glenmary mission in Macon, and Father Vic Subb is the pastor.
Guadalupe said, “I was surprised that when we moved here 12 years ago, there was no Catholic church. It felt strange since where we lived in Mexico there are Catholic churches everywhere, even in small villages. We go to Holy Family because our faith is important to us. And Father Vic knows us by name and greets us when we arrive.”
Cleto and Guadalupe know former Catholics in Smith County who have started attending churches of other denominations because they don’t want to travel to the next county. They said they themselves are regularly invited to Smith County’s Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall.
Alton Compton from Tennessee said he was “brought up as a Southern Baptist, but I knew there had to be something else after I realized that I did not agree with all their doctrines.”
Alton also remarked that he lived in Smith County for two years before he learned there was a Catholic church in Macon County. He had attended a few other churches in Smith County and had learned about still others when they were having revivals. But he didn’t know about Holy Family Catholic mission until he met Holy Family parishioner Carl Rossmossen, who also lives in Smith County.
Carl invited Alton to attend Mass at his Glenmary mission in Macon County. And after Alton participated in the RCIA program at Holy Family, he came into the Church there in 2013 when he was confirmed and received the Eucharist.
Father Bishop asked in 1936, “Does the command to ‘go teach all nations’ make an exception of our own?” Today’s Glenmarians still have a passion to go out to the frontiers and bring a Catholic presence to places where there has not been one. And there is as much of a need as ever.
Contact the Glenmary Vocation Office at www.glenmary.org/vocationinfo or 800-935-0975 for more information about how to respond to your own vocation call.
This story first appeared in the Autumn 2016 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.