By Jean Bach
Each Sunday, the members of Sacred Heart Chapel in Heavener, Okla., gather as a Catholic community to celebrate their abiding faith and hope in God’s providence through the sacraments and all things associated with their mission.
Aside from those celebrations, though, there isn’t much to celebrate in Heavener itself. “It’s basically a town that time forgot,” says Glenmary Father Don Tranel, pastor of missions in Booneville, Ark., and Heavener. “It’s a very poor, isolated area of about 3,000 people who are, in many instances, struggling just to survive.”
The mission has never had a resident pastor. This experience has instilled a sense of ownership and leadership in the mission members that Fr. Tranel says touches his heart.
“They know that being Church is a privilege and not a convenience,” he says. “That privilege is very important to them and they are willing to work hard for it.” They teach religious education classes, take people to the doctor, donate time to sweat-equity projects in the dilapidated storefront building, organize an outstanding choir and take care of everything else that needs to be done.
And the storefront building needs a great deal of care. Before the roof was replaced, rainy Sundays meant members of the congregation had to navigate—and empty—numerous buckets in the gathering space during Mass. The new roof also displaced the flock of pigeons that had made their home in the church. The worship space is filled with mismatched books, pews, statues and art that have been begged, borrowed or donated.
Glenmary Home Missioners began serving this area of southeastern Oklahoma informally in 2000. A pastoral team including Father Neil Pezzulo, pastor of Glenmary’s missions in Waldron and Danville, Ark., served the mission until 2006 when Father Don became pastor. Each Saturday and Sunday, Father Don makes a 120-mile round trip over a rural two-lane road to celebrate the sacraments with the community.
Le Flore County, home to Heavener, is not unlike many of the counties Glenmary serves. Of the almost 50,000 residents, 20 percent live below the national poverty level and only 3 percent identify themselves as Catholic.
Since Father Don’s arrival, the Spanish-speaking congregation has grown to about 130 people, although the number fluctuates based on the availability of work at the OK Foods poultry processing plant. The congregation’s growth necessitated more worship space, so local Catholics L.B. and Candy Hunt bought the building next door to the mission and donated it to the Catholic community.
A wall dividing the two buildings have been mostly demolished by parish volunteers to allow for more seating. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but it’s better than having folks spilling out the front door onto the street. A contractor has created plans to remodel the two buildings in order to better serve the community. A rendering of the proposed renovation is proudly displayed by the front door for all to see as they enter the church. The project is seemingly unattainable, but the Catholics of this mission haven’t lost hope.
“These folks at Sacred Heart lift themselves up through their faith,” Father Tranel says. Without Glenmary’s efforts in the area, he says, it’s very likely there would be no Catholic Church here and the faith that plays such a large part in the lives of these folks could not be nurtured.
Do difficulties overwhelm you or do you try to find solutions? What role does faith play in your life? Are you willing to serve in a remote or poor area?
Reprinted, with permission, from the Summer 2011 issue of Glenmary Challenge.