This is Our Story

Molly Pyle, Special to the Catholic Virginian

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles offering readers glimpses into the diocese’s history via entertaining and enlightening vignettes focusing on important, though little-known, events.

St. Bernard Parish was founded in 1956 — the first Catholic church in Gate City, Virginia, the county seat of Scott County. Archbishop John J. Swint of the Diocese of Wheeling dedicated the church in 1958. (Photo/Diocese of Richmond Archives)

For four days in July 2017, Edie Jeter, diocesan archivist, and I visited parishioners and priests in the far southwestern region of the Diocese of Richmond. Their churches are dispersed across these six contiguous counties: Tazewell (St. Teresa, St. Elizabeth, St. Mary), Buchanan (St. Joseph), Dickenson (St. Joseph), Wise (Sacred Heart, St. Anthony), Lee (Holy Spirit), and Scott (St. Bernard, St. Patrick).

Prior to 1974, this area, within Appalachia, was included in the Wheeling Diocese, which, initially, was part of a larger Virginia. During the Civil War, West Virginia formed when some southwestern counties opposed Virginia’s decision to join the Confederacy and declared their loyalty to the Union. For cultural and historical reasons, pastors and parishioners in the Southwest have felt on the periphery in relation to the diocesan mainstream.

It’s intriguing to consider: What has the Southwest been able to contribute from its vantage point? This diocese is comprised of seven diverse regions, each with a special character, rooted in history, geography, and sociology.

The Southwest has a particularly strong culture. Priests who have served in the Southwest have offered testimonials to the special way of celebrating life and faith in that area. Many diocesan priests, initial misgivings to the contrary, have fallen in love with the place and its people.

‘You’ll love it’

Father Timothy Drake, a retired priest, currently resident of and serving in Gate City, Scott County, shared his experience of transformation during his earlier tenure, around 2001, as pastor of St. Anthony, Norton, in Wise County. Having served in Richmond and the Tidewater, Father Drake proposed a new assignment in the Southwest to Bishop Walter Sullivan.  But shortly afterward, the priest had second thoughts:

“(However), the bishop wouldn’t let me change plans. When I began my assignment, I didn’t think I’d last six months. I felt like I was starting over,” Father Drake recalled. “Everything was so small. It felt like a punishment to serve in the missions. I agonized; was I called to end my ministry out here?”

Colleagues counseled patience. In 2001, Sister Jackie Hanrahan, a Sister of the Congregation of Notre Dame, then-director of diocese’s regional office for social ministry, had lived in Appalachia for almost 20 years.

She advised Father Drake, “Give it a couple years, and you’ll love it.”

Looking back, the priest recalled, “A few years seemed like forever. But she was right. At some point, I realized that I had to stop thinking about numbers and focus on people.”

He described a Catholic woman from Peru who had immigrated to live near sister, who was residing in Tennessee.

“She often sits outside the entrance to a Citco gas station across the street. People from the neighborhood come in to buy their beer, cigarettes, and lottery tickets. This woman welcomes them,” Father Drake recalled. “She’s the kind of person we all strive to be: She doesn’t pay attention to how people are dressed; she sees the person. She inquires how the person is getting along or about a person who’s been sick. She embodies community.”

Christian witnesses serve

Another noteworthy element of the Southwest is the Christian witness of the people drawn to serve there. During my visit, I met many missionaries — lay, religious, and clergy — celebrating sacraments as a close-knit community, taking care of the less fortunate through diverse ministries.

The Glenmary sisters and priests were remembered frequently in conversations. By their witness, it seems, they helped to form today’s missionaries. Like Father Drake, the Glenmary missioners — and other sisters — have connected with the Appalachian people by listening, and being transformed through friendships that slowly evolved.

In 1975, those friendships culminated in the writing of a pastoral letter, “This Land Is Home to Me.” That letter, signed by 24 bishops, including Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, was meditative, but it urged action on quality of life issues.

At the time, some in the Appalachian community strongly objected to its implied indictment of coal companies. But as several interviewees pointed out, the sisters and priests maintained their relationships with those who disagreed with the pastoral letter’s message.

Notably, early Christian action efforts succeeded in mitigating some problems, such as mine safety, but others, concerning the economy and the environment, persist today.

Father Dan Brady, who served as pastor in the Southwest from 1986 to 2006, elaborated on the sisters’ interpersonal abilities.

“The sisters understood that building community means everything in the Southwest, and that striking a balance can be difficult,” he said. “How do you balance the need for jobs against other concerns?”

According to Father Drake, Catholics in the Southwest have learned much about being “a church“ — a small, close-knit, mutually interdependent group. Today, while many young people leave the area for jobs, they return for family and school reunions; their roots are in the Southwest.

Father Timothy Drake

Father Dan Brady

To understand what the Southwest has to offer, Father Drake said, “One must visit the region and spend time with people.”