Glenmary is opening new parishes in East Tennessee. That is remarkable news compared to what we hear about parishes closing in many parts of the country. How does Glenmary do it? Always creatively, whether using the skills of priests, religious brothers and sisters, or Catholic laity. In east Tennessee, like elsewhere in Appalachia and the Deep South, it is a mixture of those efforts as Glenmary works to establish a permanent Catholic presence where none had existed before.
Lorenzo Aju is one of our newest lay missionary pastoral ministers. He recently moved to Overton County, Tennessee, about an hour-and-a-half into the countryside northeast of Nashville. Glenmary is placing a renewed emphasis on lay missioners and is actively seeking out motivated, faith-filled people called to the roles.
Lorenzo and his wife, Nicolasa, once worked in Glenmary’s Mississippi missions. Then he was tapped by Mississippi’s Diocese of Jackson as an evangelist, helping parishes to reach out. In April, the Ajus moved to Tennessee to work with Glenmary again.
“Our dream is to be visible as Catholics here in Overton County,” says Lorenzo. “We want to start a small community of faith, one where we can share and pray together. And we also want to support people in need.” These early missionary efforts are completely supported by Glenmary donors.
But first that means getting established. “The first thing to think about is the temperature! In Mississippi it’s warm; here it’s cold.” These Mississippians are not accustomed to snow, which showed up on day two in Tennessee for the Ajus. “This is different,” he says with a laugh. “And of course we go out to meet people, because we don’t know anyone here.” That means going to local restaurants, visiting with local ministers—finding any way to get to know local folks. A local Mexican restaurant has been a particularly good source for finding local Catholics.
“Everything was new, and we didn’t even have a place to live!” he says. That’s business as usual for missioners moving into a new mission county. But there is a Glenmary parish in the county nearby. “Fortunately we were offered a place to stay from Glenmary’s Divine Savior parishioner Marie Armstrong in Celina. We stayed at her house for a time while I was looking for a house in Overton County,” he says.
It’s really a different experience than taking a job at an existing parish, he observes. “It’s a challenge,” he says. “But this is where we start.” Early on, he and Nicolasa visited the local Methodist church, whose pastor welcomed them as new neighbors. They began visiting Catholic parishes in nearby counties—often you’ll find Catholics there who live in a new mission county but have gone many miles for Mass elsewhere.
It’s all in the earliest months for the Ajus in Overton County. Perhaps they will be pleasantly surprised to learn how hot Tennessee can be in the summer!
This story first appeared in Glenmary’s Cultivate newsletter.