To Joppa Mountain, With Love

Glenmary News

To Joppa Mountain, With Love

It was a perfect way to end a mission trip.

Listening to Matthew’s Gospel at Mass before we departed for home put the week of volunteering into perspective. That’s why our group of Hope’s on the Way volunteers had driven more than 500 miles to the Appalachian Mountains northeast of Knoxville, Tennessee: out of love for God and our neighbor, with a deep sense of service. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”The mission trip was organized through the Glenmary Group Volunteer Program based at Joppa Mountain, in Grainger County, Tennessee, not far from two Glenmary parishes. Schools send groups, but others come, too. Our group, Hope’s on the Way, has sponsored a number of mission trips: to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to Alabama, and to Washington, Illinois. This was our first time working with Glenmary.

After a 10-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago, we arrived at the Glenmary Volunteer Center on twisting Joppa Mountain Road. Phil and Maddie, two Mountain Managers who help lead the volunteer program, greeted us. After settling in and brief introductions, our group was introduced to the mission of Glenmary and the local project where we would work.

We are Deacons Joe Winblad, Al Lopez, and me, along with laymen John Herrmann, Gary Willman, and Rich Rybski. Anthony Tepe, from Indianapolis, who came on his own, joined us.

During the orientation, we learned that in the nearly 10 years the Glenmarians have been in this part of Tennessee, they have been able to foster a rapport with the residents, most of whom are not Catholic. “During the last 10 years, we have developed a reputation among the people. If you need help, go to the Catholics,” Phil said. “It’s a nice reputation to have.”

At dinner later in the week, Glenmary’s Assistant Volunteer Director Donna Turchi echoes Phil’s words. She said the Glenmarians focus on helping people. “I get to be the hands and feet of Jesus,” she says.

Off the grid

The project assigned to our group of volunteers was erecting a 24×36-foot greenhouse for a widow and her disabled daughter, who live about 45 minutes from the volunteer center, in neighboring Union County.

Vivian Anne and Ambria live off the grid. Solar panels provide their electricity. They collect rainwater and have a composting toilet. The greenhouse kit had been donated by a friend six years ago.

During that time, the mother and daughter prayed and tried to keep the faith that one day someone would come and help them install it. At times, serious health and financial problems pushed them to the limit.

One day, a frustrated Vivian Anne said she poured out her heart to her pastor.

“He told me that bad things happen to good people all the time, but that’s why God sends good people to help,” Vivian Anne said. “Y’all are the answer to my prayers, and we can’t thank you enough.”

The project, which we hoped to finish off in a day and half, stretched to three full days working in temperatures that reached the low to mid 90s, with high humidity.

As the heavy plastic cover over the supports was secured and the last screws were drilled, our group of volunteers gathered together for a final prayer and blessing. 

Vivian Anne and Ambria watched as our group walked around the perimeter of the new greenhouse and sprinkled holy water using a new paintbrush. As we silently gathered around them, Vivian Ann and Ambria blessed us with a prayer and song of thanksgiving. All of us were moved to tears.

The last day of our mission trip, our group split into two teams. Deacon Joe led a group, which worked with Glenmary Brother Joe Steen, a carpenter from our Chicago hometown, to build a sign for nearby St. John Paul II mission parish, down Joppa Mountain, in Rutledge.

Another group trimmed tree limbs overhanging the home of an elderly woman. Once the overgrowth was removed, tarps were placed over the roof to keep rain from leaking into her bedrooms. At the closing Mass, Glenmary Father Neil Pezzulo, pastor of St. Teresa of Kolkata Catholic Church (Union County) and St. John Paul II Catholic Mission, asked what was the highlight of the week for us.

We all shared our experiences. For me, it was seeing firsthand the poverty of rural America and meeting faith-filled people, like Vivian Anne and Ambria.

The week with the Glenmarians gave our group an opportunity to get “our hands dirty,” to go out into the community and truly serve the people, which is the mission to which deacons are called.

It was a chance to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, and cherish the opportunity to love and serve neighbors like Vivian Anne and Ambria.

-Deacon Dave Brencic

This story was originally featured in the Glenmary Challenge.

Editor’s note: Glenmary is celebrating the 10th anniversary of relocating its volunteer program, “The Farm,” to Grainger County, Tennessee, atop Joppa Mountain. Since 1972, over 20,000 volunteers have served in the program, first located near the Glenmary parish in Lewis County, Kentucky.