By Molly Williamson
Unicoi County, Tenn.
Glenmary Father Tom Charters and his building committee at St. Michael the Archangel mission have a vision. Lying in piles around their 13.5-acre lot in Erwin, Tenn., are wood, vinyl siding, steel beams, and other building materials. But all they see are possibilities for a permanent church and a way to unify their congregation and community.
“The three words that describe this project are ‘some assembly required,’” Father Tom said. “We have all the parts. We just need to put them together.”
And his congregation is chomping at the bit. Since Glenmary founded the mission six years ago, Father Tom and the people of St. Michael the Archangel have been working toward a permanent structure. Originally a congregation of 37 people who gathered at an Elk’s Club, St. Michael the Archangel now has more than 300 members, all of whom meet in a ranch home in Erwin.
Father Tom lives on the house’s main floor. Religious education classes take place in the living room, the church secretary works in his dining room and the parishioners often park on the front lawn. Downstairs, the basement and garage serve as a worship space, crafting area and church hall, where parishioners eat lunch after Sunday Mass.
The parishioners have been fundraising for a new church for two years. They have sold tacos and tamales, made crafts to sell at local festivals, hosted fish fries, and sought funding from friends.
“We have one lady who is in her 80s,” Father Tom said. “Every time someone asks her how the church is going, she tells them it would be a lot better if they would contribute, and then sticks her hand out. She has collected $5,000 that way.”
This spring will be the realization of a dream. In January, the construction crew began building the new home of St. Michael the Archangel. The new structure is a 50-foot by 100-foot metal building with a metal-pitched roof and metal siding, said Steve Miles, chair of the St. Michael the Archangel building committee. It will have space for bathrooms, a reception area, offices, a religious education room, and a kitchen.
It is a far cry from the building committee’s initial design. Slowly, they chipped away at the details, removing the frills to make it more affordable.
“But it means we will finally be rooted in our own place,” Father Tom said. “We will finally have a place that says ‘St. Michael the Archangel,’ and it will not just be in a rented building.”
So far, the land for the new church has been graded and the builders created a gravel driveway and parking lot, and framed the foundation. But those minor preparations cost $90,000, depleting much of what the church had saved.
“What helped us was the Diocese (of Knoxville) having a home campaign to build a new cathedral and establish new ministries,” Father Tom said. “The diocese gave us a goal for how much the parish needed to contribute to the home campaign. The diocese said it would give us 75 cents for every dollar we contributed to the home campaign, and after we reach our goal, it would give us $1 for every dollar we contribute.The church met its goal, and continued to grow. Estimating that the congregation would continue to give at its current rate, the church could not afford more than a $500,000 building.
“We did not want to extend ourselves beyond what we could afford,” Steve said. “We met with the builder three times. We told him the size of our church and where we are going as far as growth.”
Church construction is expected to be complete by April 1, but it is only the first phase of the mission’s building, Father Tom said. The building committee has identified spots for the congregation to eventually build a more traditional church building and rectory. Soon, it plans to create a garden with flowers and an area for meditation outside the new building.
Union County, Tenn.
Erwin is not the only mission preparing to construct a new church in 2018. St. Teresa of Kolkata in Maynardville, Tenn., St. John Paul II in Rutledge, Tenn., and Holy Family in Lafayette, Tenn., are working on plans for their new buildings.
“In the last 25 years, I do not recall at any time that we had four building projects at one time,” Glenmary president Father Chet Artysiewicz said. “This is a tremendous sign of hope and a great step for these missions.”
In September 2017, St. Teresa of Kolkata broke ground on a new church with a festival and fanfare. Established in 2011, St. Teresa has grown rapidly. It started as a “bring your own chair” mission, celebrating Mass in a carport.
St. Teresa celebrates Mass in a storefront church that is packed during weekday and Sunday Masses. On Wednesdays, the congregation flips the room, bringing in wall dividers to create tiny classrooms. Pastor Father Steve Pawelk’s office is usually packed full of donations, and often, people.
The congregation has long outgrown the space, but securing funding and approval for the church has been difficult. Already, the parish has raised nearly $500,000 of the $800,000 price. Glenmary is loaning the church $100,000. Catholic subcontractors are helping with much of the construction at reduced costs.
Originally scheduled to begin construction in January 2018, the Maynardville church is awaiting bids and dealing with unfavorable weather.
“These delays are frustrating, but we know that everything is in the Lord’s hands,” Father Steve said. “We had an overdesign that caused us to make the church smaller. We removed the offices and classroom space and will be using a modular unit for the offices and classrooms temporarily, but we wanted to make the focus on the worship space. That is the most important thing.”
While the congregation is excited, the move is bittersweet, Father Steve said. The storefront is where most parishioners met. It provided a unique environment, and they don’t want to lose the warmth and closeness they feel when they enter the small church.
But the new church tells the community that St. Teresa of Kolkata is here to stay.
“A lady at the Dollar General told me that once we build a church, she is coming, but she doesn’t go to storefronts,” Father Steve said. “The permanent church tells the community that we are not going anywhere. God is here, and you are welcome.”
At the groundbreaking in September, Diocese of Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika praised the parish for moving forward with the new church.
“In the Old Testament, it talks about when Moses approached God in the burning bush,” Bishop Stika said. “We don’t have a burning bush, but we have a burning faith, I think, in all of your hearts. There are cultures coming together, neighbors coming together, blessed by God.”
Grainger County, Tenn.
In nearby Rutledge, Tenn., St. John Paul II is following a path similar to Erwin’s. Under the supervision of Brother Joe Steen, an ad hoc group of parishioners are designing Rutledge’s new church. They are exploring a cheaper, smaller structure than Maynardville’s, a building that can largely be constructed by parishioners.“This will largely be a self-build, which is the only way we could have built,” said Father Steve, who is also the pastor of St. John Paul II. “Of all the Glenmary churches in Tennessee, Rutledge is the poorest. Everyone working on the church is volunteering or working at cost, and we have received donations from other churches and communities. We are very grateful for their support.”
Though they already have the land for the church, they are determining the best place to situate the new building. A local company will do the excavating at a reduced cost, cutting the price down to $200,000 or less.
With a wooden exterior, the building will be a small church with a pavilion attached. Inside will be a kitchen, office and open space that doubles as a church and hall.
“It will be a temporary church that down the line can become a hall or something else once we build a more traditional church,” Brother Joe said.
The Rutledge church plans are reminiscent of Glenmary’s Brothers Building Crew, a group of religious brothers who built churches, halls, rectories and other structures in Glenmary missions, Father Chet said.
“Eventually, parishes may build a more traditional-looking church with cathedral ceilings, but right now, we want to build something that is functional and affordable for the missions,” Father Chet said.
Though the Rutledge parish is hoping to break ground and begin construction in the spring, its schedule is limited, contingent on volunteers’ hours.
In Lafayette, Tenn., Holy Family mission already has a semi-permanent church home. In its tight quarters, Holy Family holds religious education classes, Mass and religious celebrations, hosts church dinners and packs boxes of food for community members. The pews serve as more than just worship seating. They are tables, a gathering space and classrooms.
“The church has been there for 35 years, but we simply outgrew it,” said Father Vic Subb, pastor of Holy Family. “It is too small and needs so many repairs. The new building will bring tremendous life and joy to the parish.”
For more than 10 years, the congregation has raised funds for a new church. So far, it has more than $500,000 in cash and another $500,000 in three-year pledges made during the church’s capital campaign. “The capital campaign exceeded our expectations,” Father Vic said. “People have been so generous, saving and selling items to help fund the new church.”
Holy Family needs $1.5 million for the new church, which will have an attached hall and classroom space. Mission leadership has spoken with the Diocese of Nashville about a loan to fund the rest of the project.
Holy Family is now awaiting bids from contractors. They should be able to accept bids before Easter and hopefully will begin construction this spring or summer.
Building in Other Ways
The new buildings are only a single step in a mission’s development, Father Chet said. It is a moment of joy, but it is not the fulfillment of a church’s mission.
“A church is a gathering of people,” Father Chet said. “We want to build a church that is a body of Christ. All of these parishes were churches before they had a building. They were functioning as faith communities and bringing a Catholic presence, social justice, and education to their areas even before they started construction.”
For some Glenmary communities, a new building is not possible or even necessary.
St. Joan of Arc in Washington County, NC, Divine Savior in Clay County, Tenn., and the Georgia missions of St. Luke and Holy Family have permanent homes. Holy Spirit in Bertie County, N.C. rents time in a local Methodist church.
In many of these places, missioners are still more focused on gaining acceptance and establishing a Catholic presence through their outreach and interactions with people in their communities.
“We are doing a wide variety of evangelization and social outreach programs, with faith and hope that in God’s time it will bear fruit,” said Father Mike Kerin, pastor at Holy Family (Ga.) and sacramental minister at St. Luke. “Much of our growth is not in increased numbers in the pews — at least not yet. It is in the ‘pre-evangelization,’ where we try to convince the community that Catholics actually are Christians.
“That is still a major hurdle,” Father Mike said. “Plus, we are experiencing the same dynamic as the entire country—many people are not going to church. The fact that we can actually keep fairly stable numbers is itself a positive sign.”
The Georgia missions are active in local ministerial associations, where they have built strong relationships with area churches and ministers. At this year’s Early County Revival, Glenmary preached the final night, which showed how Glenmary is gaining acceptance in a largely Baptist area.
Also, Glenmary is working with local churches and organizations to tackle community problems, including homelessness and poverty. Glenmary participates in a backpack program, which provides school supplies to needy children.
Brother Jason Muhlenkamp works with the poor, providing assistance to those needing help with bills. He also developed an afterschool-tutoring program.
“Rapid growth in most of the missions is much more difficult,” Father Mike said. “We are still trying to break down anti-Catholic stereotypes to build bridges of understanding. It requires patience while the seeds grow, unseen, under the soil,” he added.
In Bertie County, N.C., Father Aaron Wessman shepherds a small flock. New families are not moving into the area, because Windsor, where his Holy Spirit mission is located, is one of the poorest areas in the state. The economy is severely struggling.
“Despite the challenges, we brainstormed several creative ways we could seek to evangelize and will work to implement them over the next few months,” said the energetic Father Aaron.
Glenmary has always known that its mission was a difficult one. In 1936, Glenmary founder Father William Howard Bishop wrote about the challenge his fledgling society would face.
“It is a mammoth undertaking,” he wrote. “Generations will be required to accomplish it.”
Whether a mission grows with exponential speed, or slow steady faith, all are committed to continuing Father Bishop’s mission.
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This story first appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.