Big Hearts in the Heartland

May 18, 2011

“Go Big or Go Home” is an expression that immediately comes to mind after my recent visit to the Heartland.  Catholics in this region “go big” in many ways; they also “think big” and “pray big.”  I left there with plenty of reasons to be amazed.

During the renovation, this little “prairie gothic” was lifted off the ground to enable the creation of a basement.

I visited Unionville, a town of 2,000 tucked away in the gentle hills of northern Missouri, about 15 miles south of the Iowa border.  The local Catholic mission, St. Mary, has been around for a century and a half and is preparing for the next 100 years.  Just last year Catholic Extension donors helped this mission parish renovate its church.  With a $48,000 grant from Catholic Extension, parishioners were able to completely rehab their aging “prairie gothic” church, which had been built in the mid 1800s, a testament to the longevity of this faith community.  They jacked up the little white church on stilts to replace all of the corroded floor joists and then tunneled through sheet rock and dirt to create a finished basement for a religious education center, kitchen and parish hall.  They tightened the bowed walls of the church as much as five inches, and tore out and replaced all the old plaster and the drop ceiling.  It sounds like a big, complicated and expensive project.  Would you have guessed, though, that they pulled all this off for a mere $100,000?

Local parishioners, who have expertise in construction, lent their time to the project to cut costs.  Some spent as many as five hours a day, seven days a week for a solid six months.  These dedicated souls got local youth and children involved, and even recruited a few non-Catholics who were willing to help.

Parishioners show us the results of their work and Catholic Extension’s grant. The church was rededicated by Bishop Gaydos in October of 2010.

“The purpose of this project was not just to fix the church,” said Gene Brummer, who led the team.  ”The purpose was to get everyone involved and help them see that this is their church.”  Being a small mission, with no full-time staff and a priest who drives two and half hours to celebrate Mass, the parishioners realize they must be hands-on.

Spirituality in these parts is simple but profound:  “What matters here is what’s in your heart,” said Gene.  For the parishioners of St. Mary’s, action demonstrates what’s in the heart.

About an hour away from Unionville is Kirskville, home to Truman State University.  Approximately 5,000 students attend Truman State,  1,500 of whom are Catholics.  In 2007, the campus ministry center burned to the ground after being struck by lightning.  With a little bit of help from Catholic Extension and a whole lot of determination on their part, the campus ministry has rebuilt a state-of -the-art facility.  They have new staff in place and the campus is teeming and popping with energy.

The local campus ministry would make any Catholic smile with pride and hope for the future.   As many as 800 students participate in some way in campus ministry, an impressive statistic for a state school.  The caliber of the students says it all:

“It’s really an awesome privilege to have access to a chapel twenty-four hours a day,” said Ashley, a prayerful and well-spoken sophomore who is a leader of many campus ministry activities.  She wants to work in graphic design and advertising after graduation so that she can be an ethical voice in an industry, which in her opinion, “too often appeals to people’s weaknesses and not their strengths.”

“I plan to apply for the seminary to pursue priesthood after graduation,” said Joe, a junior from southern Missouri.  He explains that the Newman Center has played a pivotal role in affirming that decision.  “There’s such a strong faith community here,” he said.

Students sing and pray in the chapel at the Newman Center, beneath the tabernacle as well as the wooden crucifix that survived the 2007 fire.

As I travel the country, I see that great things come from ordinary, small-town folk who “go big.”  Their work reminds me of how our faith tradition is scripted, a faith in which fisherman, shepherds, and a carpenter shed light on who God is and all that He is capable of doing.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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