Finding Faith in Appalachia
Father Terry Keehan, third from left back row, and Father Jack Wall of Catholic Extension,
far right, were inspired by the tight-knit community of worshipers at St. Paul’s Church in McKee, Kentucky.
Father Terry Keehan knows what it takes to run a big parish in a large urban area. With nearly 4,200 families and 123 staff members, Holy Family Parish and its school in Inverness, Illinois, comprise a big, beautiful, bustling Catholic campus.
But Father Keehan and some of his staff were hungry to know more about what goes on in the country’s mission dioceses, in places where a parish might not even have a staff. They approached Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, to learn how Holy Family might support the mission dioceses.
Father Wall immediately invited them to “come and see” the small Catholic communities that Catholic Extension sustains. So the Holy Family staff
– Sue Geegan, Ro Geisler, Owen Walsh and Father Keehan – headed to the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky.
Upon returning, the Holy Family staff shared insights from the trip with Extension magazine – the good, the bad and the downright surprising.
The group’s first stop was Our Lady of the Mountains in Stanton, Kentucky. “When you are in a diocese like Chicago and in a parish like this (Holy Family), there is such an abundance, and so people give all the time,” Ro explained.
When the group learned that the Stanton parish collects only $450 per week on average, they were humbled by how the parishioners had to personally sacrifice to keep the parish going. “I have goosebumps when I think of them,” Ro said, referring to their deep faith and attachment to their parish.
Father Keehan added, “The grip of poverty on that community, it was palpable. Having people talk about the lack of jobs, the industries that had moved away, yet in the midst of that there was a generosity that is the human spirit when it is enriched by faith.”
The group’s visit coincided with Our Lady of the Mountains’ annual distribution of socks and underwear to schoolchildren. It doesn’t matter that many in the community are not Catholic; the parish hands out these supplies because, quite simply, people are so poor that they can’t afford these necessities.
Holy Family staffers marveled at the collaborative spirit they encountered in each of the parishes they visited. “The priest, the nun, the parishioners – they are all in it together,” Owen said, noting the can-do spirit that abounded.
Catholics are a minority in the area, but a remarkable 80 percent of them are converts. While they may be small in number, they are extremely committed to the faith. “It’s amazing how intimately they knew each other, the concern and support that they showed for one another,” Sue said. “These were community parishes in the truest sense of the word.”
On their final stop, the team met Rebecca Koury, the young adult pastoral associate on the staff of St. Paul Church in McKee, Kentucky. Catholic Extension supports Rebecca’s ministry at this mountain parish. The group was awed that a young woman from Pennsylvania, who first visited this area during a college service trip, would be drawn back.
Rebecca told the team about the time her car broke down and rolled into a ditch. As she stood, looking for help, a man pulled up and said, “If you need help around here, call the Catholics.”
That sentiment prevailed on the trip – if you need help, turn to these small Catholic parishes that are working hard to build up their communities. It seems that the strong, committed Catholics from the farthest reaches of Kentucky did more than win over their big city visitors. They made a deep impression on them.
“We do wonderful stuff at our parish because we have so many resources,” Father Keehan said, “but, I’m almost envious of their simplicity, their camaraderie and their sense of community, which is the greatest resource.”
And, added Owen, “There was not one ounce of pessimism. They are grateful for what they have; they work together toward a common goal and a simple common mission.” The group realized how grateful these Catholics are for a hand up – and not a handout – from Catholic Extension donors.