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April 16, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 12
 

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photo: Father Mark WhitePriest loves helping people ‘become friends with God’

So what’s a nice priest from Washington, D.C. doing being a pastor in Martinsville and Rocky Mount? Well, they needed him.

The deal is, Father Mark White has been a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington for 10 years now, but he never really expected to stay there.

From the time he was in seminary, he hoped eventually to be sent out from his native city to serve in a place with a greater need for priests.

He didn’t have to look far, and a year ago he believed the time was right to ask his archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, if he could be assigned to southwest Virginia and the Richmond Diocese.

Both Cardinal Wuerl and Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo accepted his request with enthusiasm and now the 41-year-old priest is the pastor of two southside Virginia parishes, St. Joseph in Martinsville and Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount.

“It’s not that there isn’t a need for priests in D.C.,” Fr. White explained, “but it’s not as acute.”

His own assignment is a case in point. He was quickly handed the reins of two parishes in this diocese, while in Washington, he noted, there are enough priests that none have to cover more than one church.

The move to come here, Father White explained, was his own initiative. During his time in seminary at Catholic University (1998-2002) he met seminarians from around the country and realized that many other dioceses were stretched for priests.

“So I knew then that I wanted someday to ask to go where there was more of a need,” he told The Catholic Virginian.

Pastoring two churches has proven to be “a challenge,” he admitted, but it’s one he relishes.

In fact, Father Mark, as he’s affectionately known to parishioners, has made a point of maintaining a residence in both communities in order to be fully present to both parishes. He lives halftime each week in each place.

The people in Rocky Mount especially appreciate this since they haven’t had a resident priest for a long time.

Unlike ministering in larger urban parishes, Father Mark pointed out, he’s learned in the southside communities “the absolute necessity of close cooperation with lay leadership — you don’t have the luxury of not getting along.”

But the people have showed him how it’s done.

“Ministry happens through cooperation with parish leaders who step forward and take responsibility. It’s a beautiful thing to see people who are used to it and willing to serve the needs of the community,” he said.

Father Mark has a good command of Spanish and also enjoys ministering to St. Joseph’s Hispanic community of about 100 families that make up half the parish membership.

The economic downturn has been particularly harsh in Martinsville where unemployment continues to run higher than most other parts of the state.

“Martinsville was a great family-friendly boomtown for a generation, and a lot of good people came here,” Father Mark noted. “Now we lose a lot of young people to Greensboro and Winston-Salem — but not as many as you would think.

“There’s just something about Martinsville,” he continued, with an admiring tinge of loyalty that belied the fact that he’s only lived here less than a year. “The people are holding onto the idea that it’s a community that has a future. That seems to be very important to them.

“It is amazing that the spirit here is as high as it is, but it’s because the people love it and want to stay.”

That attitude spills over into how St. Joseph parishioners serve each other and their community.

“I’ve learned here, more than I understood before, about trusting in God’s providence and taking it one day at a time,” Father Mark explained. “That’s how people in Martinsville have to live and that’s how the parish works, having learned how to operate when the money’s not there.

“It’s a specialty of St. Joseph’s,” he added. “When there are financial emergencies, there are generous people here who are able to help.”

Describing himself as a “sixth generation Washington native,” Fr. Mark said he “loved being a priest up there,” but he loves his new community as well.

“I think I’m where I belong,” he grinned. “I plan to take it a year at a time and see how it goes, but I really love it here and I think there’s a good chance I’ll ask to stay. I want to stay and give the time necessary to produce what’s needed.”

Having a heart for service from a young age, Father Mark served a number of years as a volunteer taking calls on a suicide prevention hotline. What he learned in his work there helped confirm his interest in pursuing ministry.

“I thought I was going to be a Lutheran minister,” he recalled with a smile, “but the Lord had it in mind that I would be a (Catholic) priest.”

He had a strong Christian upbringing with his mother, a devout Lutheran, and he graduated from St. Alban’s Episcopal High School in D.C. It was during his undergraduate studies at Catholic University that he entered the Catholic Church.

He began his discernment of a vocation to the priesthood while serving two years in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps teaching middle school in inner-city Baltimore. After a year in the Jesuit novitiate he decided to become a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington.

In southside Virginia, his purpose is to be available to the people as their parish priest “as someone they can count on.”

Simply put, he said, “I love people and I love the Lord and helping people become friends with God.”

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