Selecting New Territory

Glenmary continues to relish places like Bertie County, N.C., where nobody else wants to go!

By Father John S. Rausch

In 1939 when Glenmary was founded, about one-third of all U.S. counties lacked a Catholic congregation. Our founder's writings constantly emphasized America's "forgotten and neglected" regions and places with the "greatest need." He coined the phrase, "No Priest Land, USA," to highlight the lack of a sustaining Catholic presence in many rural areas and small towns.

Today, 173 of the 1,425 counties in the South remain without a Catholic congregation. Another 196 counties lack a resident pastoral minister. According to the 2000 U.S. census, the population in the South increased by 17 percent while, according to the Glenmary Research Center's Religious Congregations & Membership in the United States: 2000, the growth rate of the Catholic population registered an expansive 30 percent. Yet in the 1990s the Church experienced a net increase of only 34 congregations in the South, and three-fourths of these were in Florida.

The conclusions from the data indicate a significant growth in Catholic population in the South, but no accompanying increase in parishes or resident pastoral leaders. Most pointedly, from a Glenmary perspective, the data show that the most neglected in the South live in small towns and rural areas, especially in southern Georgia, northeast North Carolina, middle Tennessee, large parts of Arkansas and northern Louisiana, plus significant sections of rural Virginia and Oklahoma.

Given limited resources, both physical and human, how does Glenmary choose new mission territory in the midst of this great need?

Years ago all Glenmarians participated in an exercise on choosing territory. A team proposed three mythical counties that represent the kinds of choices Glenmary faced then-and still faces today. The exercise revealed the basic instincts of Glenmarians about the kinds of places we should go.

Mythical Sunburst County was an economically thriving Sun Belt area with northern Catholics moving in. Establishing the Church there appeared only a short-term challenge. Members were reluctant to accept such a dynamically growing area. Yet it has sometimes happened that an area has boomed after Glenmary moved in. For example, Glenmary served Greensboro, Ga., for only six years before developers began building summer homes around nearby Lake Oconee.

Mythical Lascalla County had a large cluster of Italian farmers from Calabria who lacked sacramental ministry and were in danger of losing the faith. Members were reluctant to accept the area just because there were Catholics who lacked ministry. Yet the poverty and vulnerability of the large Hispanic population that lacked Catholic ministry in Long County, Ga., tipped the scales in Glenmary's recent decision to move into this area.

Mythical Needly County was a typical Appalachian area where the poverty rate and social indicators were so desperate that the editor of the local paper described this county as "the place where the do-gooders surrendered in the War on Poverty." Overwhelmingly, Glenmary members voted to accept the challenge attached to Needly County and many enthusiastically volunteered to move to its imaginary county seat named Plopville.

Glenmary is attracted to the places nobody else wants to go. After years of service, Glenmary continues to work in places like Vanceburg, Ky.; Dungannon, Va.; Glennville, Ga.; and Valliant, Okla.-with little progress toward the establishment of Catholic communities mature enough to be returned to their local dioceses. So when a team of Glenmarians was sent to explore possible mission territory in eastern North Carolina, it is no surprise they focused on Bertie County.

With a population of 19,773, Bertie County is 62 percent black, with a county-wide poverty rate of 23.5 percent. Industrial hog and poultry farms dot this agricultural area.

The Glenmary team noticed a large number of homes abandoned because of the devastating floods from two recent hurricanes. And numerous churches were closed because of dwindling congregations. People have moved out. The local school district recently had to import 25 Filipino teachers for its classrooms.

To our fact-finding team, Bertie County was clearly today's mythical Needly County. As one of the area folks said, "Thank goodness for Glenmary. Nobody else wants to come to Bertie County."

Of course selecting new mission territory requires more than just identifying the most undesirable areas on the U.S. map. Research of various social indicators and the balancing of need, opportunity and relationship also come into play. With so many depressed rural areas, need is the easiest criterion to fill. Opportunity for ministry depends on an invitation from the local diocese and Glenmary's ability to provide human and financial resources.

Finally, Glenmary must factor in relationship-making sure some support network is in place for missioners. Two years ago 25 Glenmarians and coworkers met regularly for a year to consider the society's mission commitments. This group clearly recognized that a lone missioner might not survive and that a cluster of missioners appears essential for mutual support and health.

Thus Glenmary only accepts territory where a configuration of at least two Glenmarians under Oath plus additional professional coworkers can work together in a designated area. Besides supporting individual Glenmarians in serving a particular mission area, this interdependence between Glenmarians and their coworkers offers the American Church a model for collaboration as encouraged by Vatican II.