Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian

From the front porch of the new rectory at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Woodlawn, Father David Ssentamu can see the nearby woods and hills, his church across the parking lot and a white statue of St. Joseph the carpenter — an apt witness to the house that was recently built on the property.

At a time when small Catholic parishes often find their membership and resources dwindling, a cluster of three parishes in southwest Virginia cooperated, with support from the Diocese of Richmond, to build the rectory for their priest. Beside St. Joseph, a parish of 200 families, the cluster includes Risen Lord, Stuart, with 40 families, and All Saints, Floyd, with 25 families. The project began in May and was completed in September.

The idea for the rectory first arose after Father Ssentamu arrived in August 2016. He expressed concern over the office, which was also housed in the old rectory — a 1950s brick ranch at the edge of the property — that had fallen into disrepair. 

The previous rectory and parish offices, above, at St. Joseph Parish, Woodlawn, had a leaky roof, wet basement, mold, and snakes in the attic. Members of the parish, as well as those from Risen Lord Parish, Stuart, and All Saints Parish, Floyd, built a new rectory. (Photo provided)

“We had to cover the computer with plastic when it rained because the water came in,” he said. “And there was a lot of mold. It was not a healthy place to be.”

Although Father Ssentamu was uncomfortable bringing it up because he was new and from another country (Uganda), he contacted Deacon Paul Mahefky, director of real estate for the diocese, and simply told him: “This house is sick.” 

Deacon Mahefky visited soon afterward and agreed. And it wasn’t just the leaky roof, wet basement and mold. 

“There were also snakes in the attic,” Mahefky said. 

Many people, especially council members from all three churches, felt that besides being unfit for the parish priest, staff and visitors, it also was a poor reflection on the diocese. A building council with members from the three parishes was formed to work toward a solution. 

The first step was to build office space on to the church hall for the priest and staff. The council chose G.W. Hill Construction of Hillsville to do the work. That addition was completed in May 2017. 

All along, Father Ssentamu had hoped to renovate the old house. 

“We have to be so careful with money,” he said. “But the council members decided it was not worth renovating.” 

Nor was it feasible to buy another house nearby. The council and diocese decided that building a new rectory was the answer, and again selected Hill Construction for the job.

“Father David definitely needed to move, and we all supported him in that,” said Joseph Mammi, chair of the pastoral council at All Saints. 

Modeled after the rectory recently built at St. Theresa in Tazewell, the one-floor house includes an open living and dining area, master suite and bathroom, full kitchen, laundry room, second bathroom and two guest bedrooms. 

Father Ssentamu hung a photo of Bishop Knestout in one guest bedroom and a photo of the late Bishop DiLorenzo in the other. 

The simple design was carefully chosen to fit the life of a priest, Deacon Mahefky explained. Having only one floor is important, he noted, as he knows of a priest who, after suffering a broken leg, could not climb the stairs to his bedroom in a two-story rectory.

The new rectory has an attached garage, which is more than a convenience. 

“When a priest gets an emergency call in the middle of the night and his car is covered with snow, it’s hard for him to get the hospital right away,” Deacon Mahefky said. “And he could have a heart attack trying to shovel his car out; that’s also happened.”

Father Ssentamu moved in Saturday, Sept. 15, after holding an informal house blessing with several parishioners the previous day. He hopes to have an official blessing of the rectory and office with Bishop Knestout in honor of the Feast of St. Joseph on Friday, March 19, which the parish will celebrate Sunday, March 17. 

“If the bishop can come, he has his own special room,” Father Ssentamu said with a smile.

The building project was a source of pride for parishioners, according to Greg Feron, chair of Risen Lord’s finance council.

“It draws our parishes together,” he said. “By working cooperatively, as a big family, we’re powerful.”

The entire project cost about $265,000. The diocese provided a $75,000 grant — including $25,000 from the Home Mission program — as well as a $90,000 loan. The council hopes to repair and sell the old rectory to help pay off the loan and the mortgage. 

Many parishioners do not have a lot of money to contribute, but they do what they can, Father Ssentamu said. St. Joseph’s Hispanic parishioners, which make up approximately three quarters of the parish, hold a community kermis (festival) each month to raise money for the church. They make and sell Mexican food and donate the proceeds.

Every weekend, Father Ssentamu drives to each of the three churches, which are at least 40 miles apart, to hear confessions and celebrate Mass, sometimes in Spanish. He began to teach himself Spanish when he realized how great the need was. 

“All that Latin I learned in seminary helped me learn Spanish,” he said with a laugh.

Ken Miller, chair of the Saint Joseph pastoral council, said, “After all the traveling that our pastor has to do, he should be able to rest his head in a place that’s comfortable and clean and new.”

Added Deacon Mahefky, “If you see a nice rectory, you know the parish cares about its priest.”

These days, Father Ssentamu doesn’t worry when it rains. He can concentrate on his work for the parishes.

“I feel so grateful and blessed for this beautiful rectory, and any priest who comes after me will too,” he said. “It feels like home.”