Glenmary Welcomed in Unicoi County, Tenn.

Posted: 4/3/2012

Brother Tom Charters with Unicoi County (Tenn.) Catholics Keldon and Joyce Clapp.It’s the latest chapter in the Glenmary story. Father Tom Charters and Brother Tom Sheehy just recently began their new ministry in rural Unicoi County in East Tennessee. Their goal is to establish a permanent Catholic presence in the county—and to serve residents’ spiritual and material needs.

Since they arrived, Father Tom says, a few things have really stood out: “Neither of us has ever been so welcomed in a community by residents and other ministers. Also, our mission members are really enthusiastic and willing to take initiative. Their response has been very life-giving. And I believe everything happening here is because of the movement of the Spirit.”

Both men served West Virginia missions until those parishes were returned to the care of the Wheeling-Charleston diocese in 2011. Then late last summer they moved to Unicoi County, where less than 1 percent of the population are Catholic and over 18 percent live below the national poverty level.

The first time Father Tom drove into the county seat of Erwin in August, he says, he didn’t know anybody or have a place to live. He had earlier sent introductory letters to some local Catholics and to parishes in neighboring counties, telling them that Glenmary had been invited by the Knoxville diocese to establish a Catholic church in Unicoi County. Since then he has also placed ads in local newspapers.

On his second day in town he stopped at Erwin’s bagel shop, where he unexpectedly met two Catholics—the store’s co-owners. They were thrilled to see him. Father Tom remembers Keldon Clapp saying to his mother, Joyce, “Well, Mom, we won’t have to drive to Greene County for Mass anymore!” The Clapps and fellow area Catholics had gotten used to traveling to churches in other counties.
The Glenmarians’ providential meetings with Catholics, other ministers, and area residents are one of many ways Father Tom says they’ve experienced the Spirit’s workings. Local newspapers have also published two well-timed, positive articles. “Things have just fallen into place for us,” he says.

Beginning in late September, the fledgling Catholic Community of Unicoi County (CCUC) had several organizational meetings. About 10 days before the first scheduled Sunday Mass on Oct. 23, they arranged for a weekly Sunday rental of the local Elks Club. Since then, he says, about 40 people have been attending Sunday liturgies. He also celebrates Mass four days a week at a mission couple’s home, and once a month at the local nursing home.

But now the CCUC is close to leasing the first floor of a historic former school building in Erwin. “It’s very important to have our own permanent space with room to grow,” says Father Tom. “Later on, hopefully, we can start raising money to build a church.”  

The mission community is made up of Anglos and Hispanics. “Our Masses are bilingual to keep our community united,” he says. He isn’t fluent in Spanish but can celebrate parts of Mass in the language. And a Spanish-speaking lector has volunteered to read the Gospel in Spanish after Father Tom proclaims it in English.

Father Tom has also initiated a weekly “Food and Faith” group, which he describes as an informal question-and-answer session on faith-related topics, open to all. “It’s been a tremendous success; people really want to be there.”

Other local ministers have graciously invited him to join the ministerial association, offered assistance and prayers, and welcomed the CCUC to be part of community outreach efforts. For example, the Catholic community was invited to Thanksgiving ecumenical prayer services. And they were also asked to help put together and deliver Thanksgiving food baskets for area residents and jail inmates.

The mission members have been performing other outreach work, too. For instance, some parishioners—including Brother Tom—have organized a Knights of Columbus roundtable, which has been coordinating projects such as a Lenten food drive for the needy and a fundraising effort to help purchase ultrasound equipment for a nearby hospital. The ultrasound will provide women considering abortions with a new way of viewing the life within them. Mission members also recently helped a local Catholic family in need at Christmas by providing them with gift certificates, while Brother Tom built an access ramp for their home.   

Brother Tom is very involved in finding a permanent mission location, Father Tom says, and is active in mission life. He also continues to search for ways to best serve in outreach ministry. And he has taken on another important job—construction committee chair/site supervisor for the local Habitat for Humanity.

“Right now I’m helping finish work on a house and clearing a site for the next one,” says Brother Tom. “We welcome volunteer help, and any interested parish and school groups can contact me for more information at 423-735-0439.”

In August, Glenmary Lay Missioner Kathy O’Brien will join the Erwin mission team. With her fluency in Spanish, Father Tom says, she’ll minister to Spanish-speaking mission members, area residents and, eventually, migrant workers. She’ll also be establishing youth religious education and other ministries.

Looking ahead, Father Tom says that “experiencing the Spirit’s presence makes us very optimistic about the future.”

This article appears in the April 2012 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.