Every Sunday, Father Theodore Nnabugo is likely to spend as much time behind the wheel of his car as at the altar of a church.
Father Nnabugo, pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish in La Pine, Ore., also serves three mission parishes spread across a 10,000-square-mile region in the Diocese of Baker, Ore. On Sunday mornings he first heads to Holy Trinity in Sunriver for 8 a.m. Mass, then returns to Holy Redeemer for Mass at 10 a.m. Next up are Masses in two other mission churches, Our Lady of the Snows in Gilchrist at 12:30 p.m. and Holy Family in Christmas Valley at 3:30 p.m., before he returns home — having logged a total of 500 miles round trip.
“It is a lot of driving,” said Sally Sutton, the parish operations manager, who, along with the rest of the small parish staff, travels to each of the mission sites — the farthest of which is 56 miles away — to tend to the needs of parishioners. “As far as just administering the sacraments, it is very challenging at times.”
‘A whole other church’
This type of arrangement is much more common in the United States than many Catholics may think, said Mary Mencarini Campbell, director of Catholic Home Missions for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“That is replicated all across the Northwest and the Southwest, where there are these great distances and where parishes don’t have their own resident pastor,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “It really is a whole other church out there, and yet it is right in our own backyard.”
Though the needs of mission territories vary, they are often characterized by small Catholic populations, large geographic regions, lack of clergy and Catholic institutions, high poverty rates and limited financial resources. These factors can make it difficult to provide access to Mass, the sacraments and basic church ministries.
The USCCB’s annual home mission collection, taken each year on the last Sunday of April, helps to fund 84 dioceses and eparchies with missionary needs, or roughly 44 percent of all U.S. dioceses. The grants, which this year will total $8.4 million, can help with a range of needs from funding seminary and faith formation programs to paying the pastor’s salary or keeping gas in his car.
‘No Priest Land’
Father William Howard Bishop first recognized in the 1930s the large number of areas in the United States where the needs of Catholics were not being served. Mapping more than 1,000 counties with no resident priest — which he termed “No Priest Land, USA” — Father Bishop founded in 1939 the Glenmary Home Missioners, a society of priests and brothers. A society of sisters was founded in 1941.
Focusing primarily on the southern United States, the Glenmary Missioners today work in rural communities where Catholics often comprise less than 1 percent of the population, said Glenmary president Father Chet Artysiewicz.
“When you are less than 1 percent of the population there’s a certain unfamiliarity with you and perhaps there are misperceptions about you,” Father Artysiewicz told OSV. “That’s a difficulty of being such a minority in these areas.”
When Glenmary arrives in a new area, they often begin by celebrating Masses in someone’s home or a local community center. In many of these regions, Father Artysiewicz said, a large part of the population is unchurched.
“We need parishes to nurture those Catholics who are already there, but we also need missionaries to be out there and to say to those who don’t have a faith family and community: ‘consider us,’” he said.
For the past six years, Franciscan Sister Colette Gerry has worked with the Glenmary Missioners to build the Catholic presence in the small Appalachian town of Grayson, Ky., where she serves as pastoral coordinator of Sts. John and Elizabeth Mission. The parish shares its sacramental minister, Father Dave Glockner, with another Glenmary parish more than 30 miles away.
Though the parish only has about 50 families, they’ve welcomed new members through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
“Every year we’ve had someone come into the Church through RCIA,” Sister Colette said. “So we see growth, little by little.”
Despite the challenges they face, the small communities in mission parishes have their benefits as well.
At Oregon’s Holy Redeemer, which has only 250 families between its four locations, Sutton said that parishioners take a strong sense of ownership of their parish.
“We have an extremely engaged little parish,” she said. “We really rely a lot on volunteers to do a lot of the daily functions.”
Sutton said it is different than her experience in towns with larger Catholic populations and multiple parishes to choose from.
“It was very enlightening to me to move out here and experience this,” she said. “But we sure wouldn’t trade it for the world. It is just so close knit.”
Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.