“The people of Wyoming are fiercely independent.”
“Wyoming is like a bunch of small towns with really long streets.”
“People often describe Wyoming as rural. It’s not rural, it’s uninhabited!”
These are some of the things we heard from the wonderful people we met on our recent visit to the Diocese of Cheyenne in Wyoming. We met people who love their homeland and want others to love it too. Their humor comes through, too; one priest told us that a common joke in Wyoming, again to describe the wide-open spaces is to say: “If your dog runs away, you can still see it for three days!”
Pictures help; but if you have never been to Wyoming, it’s hard to imagine the vastness of it. The state is 98,000 square miles, and the diocese of Cheyenne encompasses the entire state. (That makes it 70 times bigger than the Archdiocese of Chicago!) Only 586,000 people live in Wyoming, compared to the 9.4 million people who live just in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. Wyoming has only 37 Catholic parishes and 34 missions, which translates to one church every 1,380 square miles. Compare that again to Chicago, which has a Catholic church every 4 square miles. All of this is to say that life for a Catholic in the diocese of Cheyenne is very different than life for Catholics living in more urban areas.
On the Diocese of Cheyenne web page, they introduce themselves by saying: “Our state is a land of wide open spaces and sparsely populated towns, but our people are faith-filled and tightly-knit, bound together by a love of God, country, community, and a Western spirit unique to this special place.”
We found all of this to be true, when we visited. The people are proud of their state and love the beauty of the open spaces. They are very friendly and move at a much slower pace than people in more urban parts of the United States. (Another funny quip we heard: “You can’t take a walk in Wyoming. People keep stopping to ask you if you need a ride!”) And although it can be a long drive to Mass on Sunday, the Catholics we met cherish their churches.
As you can imagine, in a place where there are so few people and even fewer Catholics, people see their parish community as part of their family.
One of the great things about the mission dioceses that Catholic Extension supports, is that every diocese is different. Yes, we are all American Catholics and we are part of the universal Church; but the way Catholics live out their faith and worship life is informed by the particular place and culture where they find themselves.
As Pope Francis says in “The Joy of the Gospel”, “The concept of culture is valuable for grasping the various expressions of the Christian life present in God’s people. It has to do with the lifestyle of a given society, the specific way in which its members relate to one another, to other creatures and to God. Understood in this way, culture embraces the totality of a people’s life. Each people in the course of its history develops its culture with legitimate autonomy. …The human person is always situated in a culture: ‘nature and culture are intimately linked.’ Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it.”
Catholic Extension has helped build 58 churches in Wyoming over the past 112 years. Many of those churches are still in use today. What a blessing that Catholic Extension has been able to be part of God’s grace working in the faithful people in Wyoming.
Terry Witherell is our Senior Director of Mission