Glenmary Home Missioners
Diocese of Knoxville
See how a small group of priests and brothers are growing the Church in Appalachia
According to a recent Gallup Poll, church attendance in the United States is at an all-time low. But in eastern Tennessee, the Catholic population is growing.
When the Glenmary Home Missioners arrived eight years ago, no Catholic church existed there. Now thanks to the tireless efforts of Father Tom Charters, Father Steve Pawelk, and Brothers Craig Digmann, Joe Steen, and Tom Sheey, two new churches stand in the three Appalachian counties where makeshift gathering spaces existed before.
So how did they do it?
When they first arrived, the local newspaper ran an announcement for the first call-out meeting for Catholics in the area, and the group started to reach out to people around town.
The first meeting was a BYOC -Bring Your Own Chair. 42 people showed up.
In the beginning, the small but dedicated group had many questions for their new priest: What would the parish name be? Where will we meet?
Father Tom had a simple answer: Start with the mission first.
Whether the group was meeting in the basement of a home or the local Elks Club, he told them that the most important element of their worship space was simple but unexpected: the exit sign.
“Unless you take what you’ve heard by the Word of God, unless you take Jesus who you’ve received in the Eucharist and go forth and carry it to others, it’s not worth it,” he said.
“You are the missionaries. You have to go forth and do it.”
As so they did. The small group gathered, they worshipped, and they reached out to their neighbors. Soon people began to take notice.
For a while they celebrated Mass at the Elks Club. In this photo, Fr. Tom can be seen giving a homily in the makeshift sanctuary.
As the group grew, they expanded to the basement of a home. Within a year, the parish nearly doubled and they needed even more space.
With the help of Catholic Extension donors, the community received a $50,000 matching grant and were able to build a new 5,000-square-foot multi-purpose building where they could worship and gather.
In nearby Rutledge, Tennessee, Brother Craig Digmann meets another group of the faithful from many denominations for Bible study at a converted storefront.
There, he and the missioners have walked with their community through difficult times. When an area meat-processing company was raided and a number of workers were arrested, the church was a meeting place to provide consolation and care for their parishioners who were separated from their loved ones.
The Glenmarys also have a ministry of direct service to the poor. They serve meals to seasonal migrant farm workers when they arrive in the community and travel to their work sites after dark or early in the morning to minister to their sacramental needs.
They show love and care for people of all ages and backgrounds. They greet students at the local schools and spend time with senior citizens talking, listening, and assisting with their activities.
They build and repair homes and trailers for the poor in the community, using donations to pay utility and rent bills and to purchase materials for repairs. They also collect and distribute food, clothing, blankets, and backpacks filled with school supplies. They help organize summer activities for children in poor areas of the community, and travel for miles to visit their parishioners at home or work.
Along the Appalachian trail, Brother Tom Sheey offers rest, snacks, and listening ear for tired hikers. His quiet presence and care shows God’s love to visitors to the area.
The Glenmary Home Missioners have helped rural Catholics come together to create community. They have been called the hidden heroes of their diocese, but their faith shines brightly in the hills of eastern Tennessee, echoing Matthew 5:14-15.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.
The Lumen Christi Award is proudly presented by Catholic Extension, a non-profit that
provides grants to build the Catholic faith in the poorest areas of the United States.