Special ministry needs spring up in North Dakota's oil boomtowns

The oil boom in western North Dakota has driven up the average industry wage to more than $1,500 a week and cut the state’s unemployment rate to 3.3 percent. The state Office of Management and Budget predicts a $2 billion budget reserve by June 30.

In one way or another, the boom has affected everyone in the state, including the Diocese of Bismarck, where pastoral needs are increasing for the more than 8,000 new residents — not to mention the more than 20,000 workers in the crew camps.

With the influx of people comes a mission opportunity in contemporary America and a wide open field for the New Evangelization. In response, in mid-2012, Bishop David Kagan assigned Father Russ Kovash to St. Joseph Parish in Williston, and Father Brian Gross to both Epiphany Parish in Watford City and its mission parish, Our Lady of Consolation, in Alexandria.

The two priests not only pastor the parishes, but also increase outreach to the population surge that has affected those towns.

Administering sacraments

“It’s been very eye-opening,” Father Kovash told Our Sunday Visitor. “There’s no place like Watford City and Williston, possibly in the whole United States, and our cities have been overwhelmed in all kinds of areas. There are plenty of great paying jobs here, but we don’t have enough housing, and people are sleeping in their vehicles. This happened so quickly that our cities have not been able to keep up with the demands.”

Father Kovash
Father Kovash

The plentiful jobs are in the drilling fields where hydraulic fracturing recovers oil in the deep-down Bakken Formation underlying North Dakota and Montana. Many men live in crew camps that are laid out in rows on the prairie. Whole families show up in crowded RVs and live in a state of perpetual camping out. The luckier ones rent apartments, homes or bedrooms at inflated prices that also drive up rates for longtime residents.

“Amidst all the challenges, we have some wonderful families moving here,” Father Kovash said. “They are people of faith, and they are joining our church communities.”

However, since they move from job site to job site, they’re seldom in one place long enough to prepare for the sacraments on a typical schedule.

“A family registers with the parish, and they have a 3-year-old who hasn’t been baptized, the 12-year-old hasn’t received first confession and the 18-year-old isn’t confirmed,” Father Gross said. “We are spending a lot of time on validating marriages, too. So, obviously, the sacraments are vital to them, and it’s a great grace that we can get these folks into a regular kind of faith situation.”

When temptations arise

But it’s not always easy to connect with those who work long and irregular hours. Many fall out of the habit of attending Mass. Boomtowns also breed temptations.

Father Gross
Father Gross

“You’re in a place where men outnumber women nine to one, and you take a bunch of 20-, 30-, 40-year-old single men or married men who are away from their wives, put 800 of them together, and certainly there’s vice,” Father Gross said. “They’re going to focus on booze, pornography, drugs, prostitution and strip joints. Drugs are a huge thing, and guys have said to me, ‘Father, there’s nothing to do here but drink.’ We know these guys need Jesus.”

As options, the priests offer men’s retreats and put Lighthouse Media CDs in the camp community rooms. They make referrals to get services, financial assistance or a bus ticket to go back home when things don’t work out. They make themselves available to just talk, too, because there are many stressors when a man is away from home or when families are uprooted and relocated.

Every day, the priests meet someone with a need.

“And we have to be able to meet that need, even if we don’t have that hour-and-a-half it takes,” Father Gross said. “So we are personally responding to charity as opposed to responding just out of duty. I’m here to ask, ‘What is your relationship with Christ? Do you need confession?’”

Parish support

Fruits of faith can sprout from so many challenges.

“It’s going to be an experience of their own conversion,” Father Gross added. “I see a real desire in them to grow in holiness through these struggles.”

Father Kovash commends parishioners who are evangelizing by welcoming newcomers to share in their faith lives.

“That’s an important part of what we’re doing,” he said. “So much support is needed. Typically, it’s the dad who moves here for the job, and then the mom is trying to figure out if she should work, or what she should do. The moms especially need support. In one family that I’m thinking of, the mom was living with two girls in a camper out in the middle of a snow-covered prairie while the dad worked. It’s really very close to what you would have experienced as a Bohemian or German settler who moved here in the 1860s and 1870s.”

Longtime residents are responding in other ways, Father Kovash added. Many landowners who are prospering from leasing mineral rights are giving back to their communities.

“We are seeing many people paying it forward to our charities, churches and our schools,” he said. “A lot of people are grateful to God that they have been blessed with this monetary wealth, and they are sharing it, and that’s benefitting our communities.”

The priests feel blessed by their assignments.

Father Gross has seen his prayer life “become more real” as he depends on the Lord for responding to needs that, in many ways, reflect the sorrow of Jesus.

“But it’s a sense of sorrow in a good way when I experience the sorrow of those who don’t know Christ and those who don’t respond to his call,” he said. “It’s one of the things that drives us as priests.”

No two days are alike, Father Kovash said. “And that’s wonderful. It’s our job to bring them Christ, and that’s really exciting because Jesus is the answer to all the problems in the world. We’re doing the Lord’s work, and that feeds us.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.