Bishop John Wester of the Diocese of Salt Lake City says that “there are no accidental Catholics” in Utah and northeastern Nevada, communities of largely miners and ranchers. I’m inspired after a visit to the Catholic communities there and realize he’s right: if you want to be Catholic, you have to fight for it.
The 100 families of St. Thomas Aquinas in Wells, Nev., feel the priest shortage hard, as they haven’t had a permanent resident priest since the mid-1980s. Mass is celebrated only once a month. On Sundays when there is no Mass, Deacon Craig comes into town to celebrate a Communion service, which is no easy undertaking. Deacon Craig, in his mid-sixties, must travel 330 miles on Sundays to make it to all three of his parish assignments. But, he enjoys the ministry, and has no regrets. Twelve years ago he gave up a comfortable life and a six-figure job so that he could serve these rural communities full-time.
The parishioners in Wells are grateful for what they have. Some drive up to 40 miles just to go to Mass. Surging gas prices this summer are going to force these long-distance parishioners to sacrifice even more. “I love the Mass and the sacraments,” said Audrey, a local parishioner. “It’s the essence of our faith and we don’t take it for granted. We are so grateful when we can get anything.”
They know it’s up to them to keep the Catholic faith going. “If nothing else, I am here to keep the doors open,” said Ann. People are willing to do anything they can to make sure that the gift of Catholic faith can be passed on. Catholic Extension was invited to this parish to explore how we can help build greater financial capacity in these rural churches, ensuring the faith for years to come.
Later that evening, I met parishioners from Spring Creek, Nevada, a town attracting people for its gold- mining industry. There are at least 300 Catholic families in town, but they have never had a Catholic church to call home. Over the years, they’ve celebrated Mass in a garage and later upgraded to an elementary school gymnasium. These Catholics are tired of watching fellow Catholic families be successfully proselytized by other faith groups who have sophisticated facilities, services, and networks. Spring Creek Catholics are ready for their own church; they are in the midst of a funding campaign to finance the conversion of an old warehouse into their own, “Our Lady of the Ruby Mountains.” They are exploring with Catholic Extension how to make this long-time dream a reality. “If we don’t have a church, then we will lose our way of life and our young people,” said one parishioner, matter-of-factly.
The parishioners of Spring Creek, Nevada are converting an old warehouse into a chapel. They want a stable Catholic presence in their town.
The next day, I was in Salt Lake City where I met Ruben. He participates in a lay leadership training program with 80 of his peers from around the state. The four-year program is funded through Catholic Extension’s partnership with the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Ruben is a miner and a faith leader in his rural parish. He works hard at both his day job and in his parish. Several years ago, eight of his co-workers and fellow Catholics were buried alive in a mining accident; their bodies were never recovered. Ruben was a central player in the parish’s outreach efforts to the grieving families. He understands how important it is to have a strong Catholic community – with solid leadership -- in his area. Therefore, he drove three hours to Salt Lake City, as he does every month, to get to class. He admitted he had to take unpaid time off from his job to attend.
These are people who fight for their faith. They realize what a precious gift it is and how devastating it would be to lose the Catholic presence in their area. Bishop Wester was correct; there are no “accidental Catholics” in this region. There are only proud Catholics and they are an inspiration to all. — Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management