Never give up. That is the attitude of Catholics in rural Virginia. Last week, I met with communities where Catholic Extension has provided support and others in which we are exploring ways to provide new support. These people are worth getting to know.
I met Dillanie, a 19-year old college student, who converted to Catholicism last year. She jokes that she hit a “Catholic Grand Slam” when she entered the church by making a profession of faith, baptism, first Eucharist and Confirmation several months before starting college. That was arguably her Catholic honeymoon. Now she attends University of Virginia at Wise, where there is no Catholic campus ministry and no parish. She does not have a car to drive to the nearest parish 15 miles away. Dillanie admits that she gets heavy flak for being Catholic from her fellow students. This, however, does not stop her from practicing her faith. Every Sunday, she asks one of her Protestant classmates to drive her to church, where she attends Sunday Mass by herself. “It’s very difficult when there’s no support system,” she said
Because she has been so unapologetic about her commitment to her faith, other Catholic students are now beginning to surface on campus. But, without coordination or leadership, Catholic students find it hard to get a community going. Catholic Extension is in discussion with the Diocese of Richmond about how we can support the college students of this southwestern Appalachia region of Virginia.
The young people of this area are fighting for more than just their spiritual lives, as I learned from the parishioners of St. Theresa in Tazewell, Virginia, a parish of about 100 families that covers several counties of southwestern Virginia. Since the mid-‘80s they have watched the addictive Oxycontin drug decimate their youth. “We have a major drug problem here. Everyone has been touched by it one way or another,” said Pat. Last year the parish buried a 23 year-old woman who overdosed on the drug. In spite of this, the parishioners have not lost hope. “We are few in number and big in faith,” said Kathy. “All of us have had struggles in these small parishes, but ‘the Church’ is us, and we’re not going to give up. We are Catholic to the bone.” These are powerful words for a community facing such an uphill battle.
In partnership with the diocese, Catholic Extension would like to develop Catholic young adult leaders who can provide companionship, purpose and the gift of faith to the youth in this area.
I met Fr. Dan Kelly, pastor of St. Mary in Lovingston, Virginia, and St. Francis of Assisi in Amherst, Virginia. Both churches have been supported by Catholic Extension in the past six years to help build new facilities for these growing communities. I quickly realized the cause of this growth: Fr. Dan is perhaps the most energetic and outgoing 73-year old I’ve ever encountered. Having absolutely no intentions of retiring or slowing down, Fr. Dan faithfully pastors his two churches and somehow finds the time to minister to nine different field worker camps in the area. In spite of his age and his work load, he will not stop.
He took us to one of these camps to introduce us to the men who work the orchards. Away from their wives and children, and their faith community, they labor six days a week for nine straight months in the peach and apple industries. The men are delighted to see Fr. Dan, who shows up with a full kettle of spaghetti that he prepared himself. With the Irish twinkle in his eyes, Fr. Dan tells jokes to the workers over dinner, speaking Spanish with his endearing Gringo accent. Beto, one of the workers, said that all the men are very Catholic, and they feel privileged to practice their faith with the help of Fr. Dan.
Out of their struggles, Catholics of Virginia have been conditioned to walk by faith. They are building a foundation upon which Catholic Extension, in partnership with these refreshingly determined communities, can help create a foundation for a stronger Catholic Church that can serve as the compassionate hands of Christ for an area in need.
— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management