Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian
On Sunday, Nov. 4, about 70 members of St. Anthony Catholic Church, Norton, listened to the Gospel according to Mark in which Jesus states the two greatest commandments: to love God completely and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
St. Anthony Parish works diligently at loving its neighbors. One parishioner, Jane Sandt, said the neighborly love of the Catholics in Norton deeply affected, and probably saved, her life.
“When I was growing up, it seemed like the nicest people I knew were all Catholics,” she said.
Sandt, 59, converted to Catholicism after decades of little faith. In 2004, she went to see the film “The Passion of the Christ” with a friend, although she did not want to.
“But God puts us where we need to be,” she said. “I became very emotional during it. That night I got home, knelt down, and said, ‘Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing, but if you’re there, I’m ready.’”
Soon afterward she decided to join the Catholic Church, which surprised everyone, including herself. She began the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and was confirmed in 2007.
Born and raised amid the steep hills of Norton, Sandt is a quick, bright, friendly spirit whose faith pours from her like a mountain stream. A mother, stepmother and grandmother, she is happily married to Gordon Sandt, an Episcopalian. Raised Presbyterian, no one else in her family is Catholic. But they all understand and support her. One daughter married a Catholic man and they are raising their children in the Church, and her husband gladly helps with St. Anthony social ministry projects, such as delivering donated food and clothing to those in need.
“I always say Gordon is one of the best Catholics I know,” Sandt said with a laugh.
A call to serve
In Norton and the surrounding coal region, high unemployment has led to the highest poverty rates in the state. With that have come other challenges, including drug addiction.
In spring Sandt will complete her first college degree, a bachelor’s in social work from King University in Bristol. She currently holds an unpaid internship with the Norton Department of Social Services (DSS), where she works with the foster care program.
Whether or not she finds a job with the department, which has limited funds, or another area agency after graduation, she said she will continue to volunteer for DSS. Ultimately she hopes to earn a master’s degree in counseling.
Sandt said that she and DSS Director Sara Ring plan to develop a focus group to address substance abuse recovery and possibly a mentoring program to support those attempting to recover from substance abuse. She added that maintaining sobriety is a challenge for most people. Many cannot get jobs because of their records and therefore cannot escape the drug environment.
“I really want to help these families,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking to see some of these situations. A lot of kids are removed from their homes and placed in foster care because of the parents’ drug use.”
She said that when she goes with DSS staff to homes where drug use is suspected, most of the clients are receptive and cooperative.
“I think they really want to get help and to become healthy,” she said, adding they want to do whatever is necessary to be reunited with their children.
But not all the homes she sees in disrepair have drug issues.
“Due to the economy, many of the poor in our area just don’t have the resources to make repairs to their homes,” Sandt said.
Ring noted that not all cases they see require removing children from homes.
“Sometimes they’re just poor,” she said.
Three years ago, Sandt felt called to service. She had just lost her job of 25 years when the local AT&T call center closed. In that role she had assisted hearing-impaired customers.
Around this time, during one of her frequent hikes on High Knob Mountain, Sandt found herself praying for guidance.
“I just felt that God was calling me to serve,” she said, “and I asked, ‘What do you want me to do?’”
Because AT&T was offering tuition assistance to departing employees, Sandt began her social work degree. But she wanted to do more.
Soon, one thing after another began to happen. She was asked to speak about her faith, parish and community needs at a diocesan meeting and to help coordinate the annual Thanksgiving community dinner, which provides donated meals to families in need.
This past Thanksgiving morning, more than 50 volunteers came to St. Anthony Parish to prepare, assemble and deliver 526 meals — all donated food and funds for buying food — to residents of Norton and a few outside Norton who expressed a need for food.
She spoke with fellow St. Anthony parishioner Jen Boa, who wanted to help local children. When they learned that the DSS often could not meet all needs because of limited funds, they formed a non-profit organization called Helping Hands to bridge the gap.
“We knew there were needs that we had to address as a faith community,” Sandt said.
For example, DSS director Sarah Ring mentioned a need for children’s shoes, which her agency could not provide; Helping Hands and St. Anthony parishioners donated dozens of pairs of shoes in response.
“If these organizations can work together, it will make a big difference,” said Brad Mathisen, St. Anthony pastoral associate who also serves as Catholic campus minister at the University of Virginia at Wise. “The regional issues are complicated, and because of Jane’s work and background here, she is a good one to tell this story.”
Father Dan Kelly, who serves as chaplain for St. Anthony; Holy Spirit, Jonesville; Sacred Heart, Big Stone Gap; and St. Joseph, Clintwood, all parishes with limited resources, said people like Sandt are essential for helping the community.
“That work is absolutely critical,” he said.
He estimated that St. Anthony has about 85 households; many of them are Filipino families who also pitch in to help.
“Jane’s leadership with the Thanksgiving community meal is just one example of meeting urgent needs to feed people who are hungry,” Father Kelly said.
Opportunities to serve are increasing. Sandt helps organize an Angel Tree through DSS to gather Christmas gifts for area residents, which St. Anthony supports. She also serves as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharistic.
Love of neighbor
Sandt teaches Sunday school to a class of two — siblings Olivia (“Ollie”), 7, and Levi Cathell, 10. On Nov. 4 the lesson was, as it often is, how to love one’s neighbors. The children listed all the things they were thankful for and prayed “for others who don’t have food, water or homes, so that they can have those things.”
She herself grew up among the love of her neighbors. Her parents had a difficult and volatile marriage, and when she was 12, her mother left the family and the marriage ended in divorce. Sandt and her brother and sister remained in the family home.
Although their father was a successful local attorney, his busy schedule meant long hours at his office down the street.
“As a result, we were often left unsupervised,” Sandt said.
A few blocks down the hill, near the church, was St. Mary Hospital, founded in 1948 by the Glenmary priests. It was run by the Sisters of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God who knew that Sandt and her siblings could use some attention. Their convent next to the hospital soon became the children’s second home.
“We felt so loved there,” said Sandt, who felt especially mothered by Sister Anne Christina, the hospital administrator. “They made sure we ate and did our homework.”
In a region where Catholics were, and sometimes still are, regarded with suspicion, Sandt said, it was remarkable how the nuns were accepted by the community.
“The sisters were loved and respected by the town of Norton because of all the good work they did,” she said. They never pushed Sandt or anyone else to join their church.
“They simply lived their faith by example,” she said.
After the hospital and convent were relocated to buildings on the edge of town, Sandt still stopped by to visit. By 2005, the hospital had become private, the convent had closed, and the sisters had moved away. The hospital is now Mountain View Regional.
A white statue of the Blessed Mother used to stand above the entrance to the old hospital, overlooking the street. Sandt loved that statue and said she came to think of Mary as a kind of mother. She often heard the sisters praying the rosary.
“Back then I didn’t have a spiritual feeling, but I was moved by the thought of Mary’s love and care,” she said.
Today the statue stands outside Mountain View Regional Hospital in honor of its origins with the Poor Servants of the Mother of God.
“I’d love to have presence like those sisters in our town again,” Sandt said. “It’s starting to happen. People are stepping up.”
The power of prayer
While St. Anthony is a small parish, according to Sandt, it is generous. When she hears of a need through DSS and mentions it to her parish, the donations pour in.
“I’ve heard people from big churches say they wish they had the closeness that St. Anthony’s has,” she said.
The same Sunday parishioners heard about the two greatest commandments, Father Kelly stood before the altar made of coal and spoke about the need to care for each other.
“Sometimes there are children who have no one to look after them in their own families,” he said.
Some of St. Anthony’s generous parishioners did exactly that for Sandt years ago. Besides the nuns, several neighbor families quietly looked after her and her siblings.
“Their names — the Carusos, the Gabriels, the Isaacs — I realized later they were all Catholic,” she said. She still sees some of them at church and social events.
Nearly every weekday after school, Sandt stopped by J.T. Caruso’s market to visit him. He always gave her a corned beef sandwich and a hug.
“I really went for the hug,” Sandt recalled.
Years later, Billie Gabriel told Sandt: “We prayed you kids through your lives.”
That comment comes to mind when people ask Sandt what they can do to help, especially if they have limited resources.
“I always tell them to pray for the people in this area,” she said. “Do not discount the power of prayer.”
She looks back on those years with wonder and gratitude for the love she received and for the example she was shown.
“You just never know when you might be the light of Christ to someone,” she said. “The smallest thing can have a big impact on someone’s life.”
Editor’s note: Contributions can be mailed to Helping Hands, P.O. Box 844, Norton, VA 24273.