“If anyone comes to serve here, they need to love the people.”
That’s what Pat Riestenberg told me when I met her last month at Our Mother of Good Counsel Church, located in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. Pat was nominated by the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky for Catholic Extension’s 2017 Lumen Christi Award.
Pat knows what it means to love the people. She came to Hazard, Kentucky in 1990, from her home town of Cincinnati, where she had been teaching Catholic school. Pat felt called to do a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. What she didn’t count on was falling in love with the people, so 27 years later she is still there. In all those years, Pat was part of the Franciscan community that was responsible for the pastoral care of the church; but just this past year, the Franciscans had to leave the church. With their departure, Pat now is also responsible for the day-to-day operations of the parish. Though it is difficult for Pat that she no longer has the community that she prayed and lived with for so many years, she knew that she needed to remain there for the people of the parish, so that she could be a constant for them, in the midst of so much change.
Our Mother of Good Counsel is the only Catholic church in all of Perry County, which is where Hazard is located. That means it’s the only Catholic church in a 323-square-mile area. Those are miles made up of mountains, not flat roads. It can take some parishioners one hour to get to church.
The church was originally built by Italians who had come to the Appalachian Mountains to work in the mines. Pat said that everyone in the parish knows someone who has lost a loved one in the mines. That is why the plaque of Our Lady of the Mines, found behind the tabernacle, is such an important part of their church, as well as in the central stained glass window. She brings comfort to those who pray before her.
Less than 1 percent of the 28,000 people in Perry County are Catholic. Pat jokes that despite the small number of Catholics, Our Mother of Good Counsel is considered the “mega church” among the Catholic churches in the area, because there are usually about 100 people at their Sunday Mass, whereas the Catholic churches in neighboring counties typically have no more than 25 people at Mass. Despite its small size, Our Mother of Good Counsel is the only diverse church among the other Christian churches in the county. It’s tough to have diversity in an area that is 97 percent white, but one of the beautiful things about the Catholic Church is its universality, and because the local hospital attracts people from distant places to come work, their small church has people from Lebanon, India and the Philippines. That’s more diversity than many suburban parishes in major metropolitan areas!
This is not an easy place to be in ministry, where there is so much heartache. Almost 30 percent of the people in this part of Appalachia live below the poverty line. Of the 3,142 counties in the United States, Perry county recently ranked 3,140th in life expectancy. That is why Pat is tireless in her work and her attempts to reach out to the people. She is not only the director of religious formation for children and adults, but also leads the planning of the liturgies, plays the guitar at Mass, and leads the parish in outreach ministry. And now without a full-time pastor, she also manages the finances and the daily workings of the church.
Pat has always looked to see what the people of the church and the broader community need. Years ago, she helped start a health clinic in the basement of the church, because that’s what the people in the community needed at that time. That health clinic still exists, but it has grown, so is no longer at the church. She also has been an integral part of a number of other outreach ministries, including the food pantry and the homeless shelter in the area.
Pat continues to discern what it is that the people of the community need. These days, there are a lot of people who are hungry, and they come to the church looking for food and for help paying bills, so she has stocked the pantry with food for folks when they come to the door. She says that she sometimes sees herself as a “stay-at-home mom," since she is the one who is always there to help whoever comes to the door.
Catholic Extension’s support of Our Mother of Good Counsel Church goes back almost as long as Pat’s time there, providing $250,000 in funding since 1999, for the renovation and expansion of the church, and for the building of the religious education center.
Our Mother of Good Counsel is a title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary, after a painting said to be miraculous, now found in the thirteenth century Augustinian church at Genazzano, near Rome, Italy. Of course this would have been a connection to home for those early Italian immigrants who came to mine the Appalachian Mountains. Pat pointed out that Jesus is always portrayed as a child rather than a baby when he is with Our Mother of Good Counsel. That is because it would be as a child that Jesus would benefit most from his mother’s advice and counsel. How blessed the people of the community are to have a mother-like figure who has remained a constant for them, in the person of Pat Riestenberg.