I was recently in the Diocese of Salt Lake City, which is supported by Catholic Extension. The diocese has some challenges: it spans the entire 85,000 square miles of the state of Utah, and the Catholics here, although growing in number, are not the predominant faith group. Bishop John Wester of the Diocese of Salt Lake City said that Catholic Extension, and all who belong to this movement, “have the power to affirm people.”
Bishop Wester’s words were in my head as I visited San Rafael Mission Church located 145 miles southeast of Salt Lake City in rural Huntington, Utah. This mission parish of approximately 75 families receives a small operating grant from Catholic Extension each year. I was amazed by the energy of the San Rafael mission, which was just built in 1990 with Catholic Extension support.
San Rafael Mission Church in Huntington, Utah.
The collective sound of restless babies and fidgety toddlers who filled the church to capacity for a weeknight mass signified to me the great potential of this unassuming community, nestled in a valley beneath the towering stretch of mountains.
Those same mountains are the source of people’s livelihood. Most of the community members work in the coal mining industry and must work hard to make ends meet.
During my visit, I met with a father of three named Ruben, who is a coal miner. Several of Ruben’s friends and co-workers were killed in the Crandall Canyon coal mine collapse five years ago. Not only was he part of the rescue effort, risking his own life to save those who were trapped inside, but he was also a key player in the spiritual outreach to his co-worker's families who were devastated by the loss of their loved ones.
Ruben took us to the now-shuttered coal mine, where six grave stones mark the place where the bodies of those lost are believed to be entombed underneath the mountain. We said a prayer together.
Ruben and Rosario walking to the site of the mine collapse with their youngest child.
This experience with tragedy played a large role in motivating Ruben and his wife, Rosario, to take part in an intensive Leadership Formation Program, offered through the Diocese of Salt Lake City and funded by Catholic Extension.
Ruben and Rosario have come to a deep understanding of what a strong faith community can mean in people’s lives. So, they are willing to do everything they can to keep their Catholic faith community strong in Huntington. They realize that church is not merely a member-centered club that superficially supplements one’s social life, nor is our faith a product that we privately consume.
Catholic Extension staff and community members in prayer at the memorial site.
Rather, their experience as Catholics in Huntington has given Ruben and Rosario the insight that faith is an essential staple of life that touches every aspect of our human experience, both the joys and sorrows. Furthermore, faith ultimately propels us beyond ourselves in service of others who are in need.
Therefore, to maintain a strong Catholic presence in rural Huntington, Ruben & Rosario have committed themselves to a four-year program so that they can serve as certified lay volunteer leaders in their mission church, where there is no resident priest and no paid parish staff. Together Ruben and Rosario will be responsible for religious education and organizing community activities to ensure that the Church is present and active in this part of Utah.
Ruben asked me, “So what do you think about small missions like ours?” I responded very genuinely, “Your dedication to our Catholic faith is truly unique, and I really think that communities like this have something to teach the rest of the Church.”
Catholic Extension exists to wholeheartedly affirm the unique experience of Church in communities like San Rafael, and to affirm extraordinary leaders like Ruben and Rosario. We believe that the example of heroes like these, although coming from relatively unknown places, can nonetheless create a giant ripple in the Church.
— Joe Boland, Catholic Extension Vice President of Mission