For more than two centuries, scattered Catholics have lived in Martin County, N.C., served by religious sisters and a stream of visiting priests. For the past year, the people have had something they never had before—a resident priest.
Glenmary took over Holy Trinity in October of 2018, with Bishop Luis Zarama of Raleigh installing Father John Brown as the parish’s first full-time resident pastor.
Martin County, N.C., was incorporated in 1797. History tells of early Masses in train cars, traveling chapels, homes and even a prisoner-of-war camp before Holy Trinity Catholic Church was established in 1951 in Williamston, the county seat.
The parish has had ups and downs, but in recent years many of the ministries associated with the mission had dried up. Even confirmation instruction had ended. Things started to pick up in 2017 when Father Michael Burbank, from nearby, became pastor of Holy Trinity and two other parishes. Despite Father Michael’s best effort, there was only so much time in a day.
“We have always wanted someone here full-time,” said Betty Dugger, chairwoman of Holy Trinity’s parish council. “The last priest that we had here had three churches, so we didn’t have the chance to stay and talk with him. He had to rush from one church to another church.
“We can reach out to [Father John] at any time,” she added. “If there is someone sick and he needs to know about it we can pick up the phone and call him. We really love having a full-time priest. He can visit the sick, and he does, whether they are home or in the hospital. He always makes time for that.”
For Glenmary, taking on Holy Trinity as a new mission made sense. Glenmary Home Missioners operate two missions near Martin County. St. Joan of Arc in Plymouth, N.C., and Holy Spirit in Windsor, N.C., are both within 25 miles.
“It’s a small rural church that was really struggling,” Father John said. “The previous pastor was doing a lot at three churches. He was delighted [Glenmary arrived] because he felt he wasn’t physically able to give people the ministry that they deserved here. At the same time, it freed him up to do more at his other two parishes.”
When Father John arrived, Holy Trinity was on the upswing, but problems remained. The lack of religious education in years past plagued young people’s understanding of God. There was no formal outreach to the poor and there was no adult education. Not all of those things have been addressed thus far, but Father John is learning more about his mission every day.
“I’m still very much a new priest here,” Father John said. “I’m getting to know them by talking to them individually, by visits to their homes, but predominantly by living through things with them. I’m getting to know them by baptizing their kids, by some marriage instructions, and living through the liturgical seasons with them that are set up to help us enter the mystery of Christ’s incarnation.”
Martin County is home to fewer than 23,000 souls, with about 5,500 living in Williamston. Like most Glenmary missions, Holy Trinity is small, Father John says about 100 people come to Mass each weekend. He’s hopeful that will increase when the parish increases from one bilingual Sunday Mass to having one Mass in English and one in Spanish. He’s also encouraged parishioners to volunteer at food banks run by local Protestant churches, and he’s added a Bible study.
“We never had a Bible study before,” Dugger said. “A lot of parishioners really wanted that, and he instituted that this past April.”
Father John takes his motivation as a Glenmarian from a passage in Romans, specifically Romans 10:14. “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?”
One year into his life at a new mission, the people of Holy Trinity are glad to have someone to preach full-time by word and example.
This story first appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.