He’s a cradle Catholic from rural Kentucky, which is maybe why Bishop J. Mark Spalding has an easy understanding of Glenmary’s mission. Bishop Spalding’s home county is not typical, though. It’s in what he explains, with a chuckle, the “Catholic Holy Land,” a small area, south of Louisville, where a group from Maryland came as frontier missioners in 1780. The Diocese of Nashville, to the south, is where Bishop Spalding serves today. His keen sense of the needs of rural Tennessee drives his desire to expand the mission of the Church. Glenmary is helping him to do it.
“Nashville is a sort of booming place down here,” he comments with his soft southern dialect and a bit of twinkle in his eye. Indeed, there is a growing economy and diverse population. In that is a range of social groups, rich and poor.
“I think Glenmary really serves the margins,” says Bishop Spalding. He’s referring not only to the out-of-the-way places, but also to those people who live the more hidden lives of poverty in small towns. “These people, sometimes not seen by the general population, are clearly seen by the Glenmarians: the simple worker, the Hispanic immigrant, or just good old rural folk. They reach out to them in simple ways of faith, hope and love. And they spread that with their great Glenmary spirit.”
Did we mention that Bishop Spalding loves Glenmary? “Glenmary starts in counties that have very few Catholics, but from there great things happen!”
From Storefront to Parish
Bishop Spalding is a missioner at heart, it seems. “The teaching of the last three or four popes has been clear that the Church, by definition, is missionary,” he says, emphatically. That is especially true in his diocese.
“Four percent is the total I keep having told to me,” speaking of Catholic portion of the overall population in the Nashville diocese. There are more, though. Many Hispanics are “off the radar, and they want to stay off the radar. But they are our people—faithful, devoted women and men of the Church. And they truly wish to be a part of the Church and to have the Church prosper.” He is keen on finding ways for the Church to serve this growing population. That would be in addition to the broader needs of the local Church.
Many of the outlying parishes of the diocese, Glenmary or not, have grown organically, he says. “They start out as storefronts, even garages or barns, and they just get families together. Slowly but surely they blossom over the years.”
That type of growth he would like to encourage, especially in rural areas far to the northeast of Nashville, where Catholic parishes are few and far-between. It’s not that Catholics aren’t there, says Bishop Spalding, “it’s that a place to gather and celebrate the sacraments, to hear the Word of God, is not as available as we can make it.” In many cases Catholics drive a great distance to get to the nearest parish, he adds.
One of those is in the countryside about an hour northeast of Nashville, in Macon County, where Glenmary has been serving Holy Family mission parish, since 2003, building up what was a small faith community. Bishop Spalding came there just two years ago to dedicate its first permanent church building, erected with help from Glenmary donors. Today Glenmarians from Holy Family drive 35 miles to serve parishioners in adjacent Clay County, at Divine Savior mission.
Glenmary is now furthering its reach in the region. This year, Glenmary Father Don Tranel began mission work to the east in Smith County, Tenn., meeting and talking with people, and taking the early steps toward gathering a parish community. There are plans underway for another Glenmary mission parish in a nearby county. Add to that Glenmary Brother Craig Digmann’s ministry of evangelization in nearby Trousdale County. You start to see through Glenmary’s work a dramatic increase in the Catholic Church’s ministry to this neglected area in this region.
In Trousdale County, Brother Craig is establishing a Catholic presence by sowing seeds of understanding, a style of ministry that Bishop Spalding likes. “You connect with the people,” says the bishop. “Our numbers are so small in some of these towns in Tennessee that either they don’t know, or they’ve never been taught about Catholics.” There could even be some anti-Catholic stories floating around. “Brother’s work really kinda challenges that, and also puts at ease people around us that we are Christian.”
Glenmary holds a special place in his heart, and in the history of the Nashville diocese, Bishop Spalding says. Are other missionary societies there? “Not yet! You’re our mainstay right now,” he says, graciously. “And we sure appreciate it.”
This story first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.
-By John Feister