‘Adventure’ is education in diocese’s southwest


I didn’t go to school this past summer, but I did get an education.

If visiting 21 parishes over 1,100 miles in five days were a graduate school course, it would be titled “Introduction to the Diocese of Richmond — the Southwest.”

Earlier this year, Edie Jeter, the diocese’s archivist, knowing that during the four years I have been in the diocese that I had not been to the southwest, asked if I would be interested in visiting it.

“It’ll be an adventure,” she said.

Kurt Hickman, the diocese’s director of Risk Management, has been visiting the area every two years since 1998 in order to do safety inspections at churches. For the last 10 years, Edie has gone along to talk to the pastors and other staff members about patrimony, i.e., vestments, liturgical accoutrements, as well as answer questions about parish records.

While this course intertwined lessons in history, economics and geography, they were often explained in terms of family, outreach and gratitude. The parishioners who presented them — and how they presented them — reminded me of my years in Catholic elementary school when, whatever the subject matter, there was an underlying spiritual element.

Every “instructor” — a few who were paid staff but most of whom were volunteers — was passionate about their faith and their parishes.

Among them, some were in their 60s, but more in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Asked what will happen to their parishes when they die, the answer was always a variation of a matter-of-fact, “We don’t know.”

Focus on what is

Yet, rather than dwell on what might be, several, like Barbara Blanton, 78, of Sacred Heart, Big Stone Gap, spoke about what is.

“Our faith keeps us going,” she said. “We have strong faith.”

She was excited to report that there were 26 people in church the previous Sunday — “I count everyone.” A new family with seven children had joined the parish in April.

At Holy Spirit, Jonesville, where 70 families are registered at the only Catholic church in Lee County, Brenda Molony noted that there were 12 people at Mass on Sunday.

“We are totally volunteer,” she said. “Everybody volunteers, everybody pitches in.”

Mary Byrd, the business manager for Christ the King, Abingdon, described her parish as “very friendly, very welcoming.”

At Risen Lord, Stuart, Julia Hennessey was setting up for the parish rummage sale. Calling herself “a good Irish Catholic,” Hennessey serves as the office manager who does “whatever needs to be done,” e.g., set up for the 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass, launder altar linens.

“I love my faith,” said the 82-year-old widow. “This is my family.”

‘We live like family’

Hennessey wasn’t alone in viewing her parish as family.

There is deep love between parishioners and their pastors. Neither takes the other for granted. As Father Eric Baffour Asamoah, a native of Ghana and pastor of the Holy Trinity Cluster Parishes Holy Spirit, Jonesville; Sacred Heart, Big Stone Gap; St. Anthony, Norton; and St. Joseph, Clintwood, said, “Life is so different. Life is about community. We live like family.”

St. Elizabeth, Pocahontas, is part of the Holy Family Parish, which also includes St. Theresa, Tazewell; St. Mary, Richlands; and St. Joseph, Grundy. Life-long member Vince Shumate, 80, got right to the point.

“We’re not just Church members; we’re family,” he said. “If something needs to be done, it’s pitch in and do it. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Father Xavier Banasula, administrator of the Spirit of the Mountain Cluster: St. Mary, Coeburn; St. Therese, St. Paul; and Good Shepherd, Lebanon, drives 115 miles each weekend as he celebrates Masses Saturday, 5 p.m., Coeburn; Sunday, 8:30 a.m., St. Paul; 11 a.m., Lebanon. It totals 160 when he goes to the campus ministry center at UV – Wise.

A 39-year-old native of Uganda who came to the Diocese of Richmond in 2016, Father Xavier said with a laugh that he “didn’t drive real well” when he came to Virginia, but that parishioners helped him learn.

“They have been good to me,” he said. “They mentored me. We have gotten to know one another deeply; we depend on each other.”

‘It’s in our blood’

Witness to the Gospel is expressed through outreach. At Sacred Heart, Big Stone Gap, it’s Rita’s Shoppe where people can get bargains on clothes and other items.

“The outreach is more important than the money,” Blanton said.

At St. Joseph, Grundy, Frannie Minton notes the outreach to the town’s pharmacy and law students, as well as what they mean to the community.

“We’re so blessed by the students,” she said.

Handing me a booklet listing the outreach ministries in which Christ the King parishioners are involved, Byrd said, “It’s in our blood.”

Some parishes, like St. Joseph, Clintwood, are the beneficiary of a twinning relationship. It has one with St. Joseph Parish in Appleton, Wisconsin, that spans 15 years. The latter sends money as well as jackets, sweaters and coats that the Clintwood parish makes available to those in need.

Other parishioners mentioned gratitude for the support they receive from parishes in the Diocese of Richmond, e.g., St. Nicholas, Virginia Beach; St. Augustine, Richmond; and St. Michael the Archangel, Glen Allen; and St. Edward, North Chesterfield.

Wringing out the sponge

Often at the start of a course, the instructor will ask, “What do you hope to get out of this?”

As I prepared for this one, I wanted to be a sponge — soak up as much as I could about the aforementioned parishes and their members, as well as those at St. Edward, Pulaski; St. Mary, Mother of God, Wytheville; St. John, Marion; St. Patrick, Dungannon; St. Bernard, Gate City; St. Joseph, Woodlawn; St. Ann, Bristol and All Saints, Floyd.

I continue to wring out that sponge, processing what I absorbed. As I do, I recall two things that Andrew Satmary, a 95-year-old lifelong member of St. Elizabeth, Pocahontas, shared with me.

First, he mentioned how his parish has survived.

“When the mines started to close, we stayed together as a parish. We had some hard going, but, thank God, we had some hard working people that stayed with the church.”

Then, as we finished talking, he referred to the Baltimore Catechism.

“’Why did God make you? To know him, love him and serve him in this world.’ That’s what I’ve been doing.”

For Satmary and the Catholic faithful in the southwest, it’s the Catholic story.

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