Sunday, July 6, 2003

Catholics slowly finding acceptance in Appalachia

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

[IMAGE] Sister Beth Carrender stands in front of the Holy Angels Catholic Church in McRoberts, Ky.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
McROBERTS, Ky. - Worshippers gather each Sunday morning at Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church in what must be one of the smallest sanctuaries in the nation.

But, then, a huge cathedral isn't necessary for a congregation of 10 people.

The outer walls at the church are plain, gray concrete blocks. The parking lot is grass and scattered gravel. There's no steeple pointing heavenward. No gymnasium. Only the quaint, square building.

This is Catholicism, Appalachian style, where the faithful few have labored for generations among a predominantly Protestant population that wasn't always welcoming.

After a century of mistrust, even persecution, Catholics in mountain communities across central Appalachia are seeing a level of acceptance among Protestant neighbors like never before, said Robbie Pentecost, a nun who serves as executive director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.

"There are still some preachers who will tell their congregations that we worship idols, that we have horns, that we're not Christians," Pentecost said. "But for the most part, we have been accepted."

In most rural communities in central Appalachia, Catholics make up less than 1 percent of the population. Some priests travel like old-time circuit riders from one small church to the next. Congregations typically are made up of descendants of immigrants who came to the coalfields in the early 1900s to work in the mines alongside their Protestant neighbors.

Pentecost said newcomers, especially those from cities with large Catholic communities, find central Appalachia an unusual place.

"At first, it's culture shock," said Rosalyn Soller, a nun who came to the McRoberts area from Pittsburgh about five years ago to care for the sick in the rural communities of eastern Kentucky. "It seemed there was not another Catholic for miles around."

Beth Carrender, a nun who attends the McRoberts church, said when her order of Benedictine Sisters first moved into the community 30 years ago, people would throw dead animals onto their porch, which they took as a sign of intolerance.

"A lot of barriers have been broken down," Carrender said. "It has come simply from working with the people. It initially was very difficult."

The Rev. John Rausch, an itinerant priest based in Stanton who came to the region from Philadelphia some 25 years ago, said the attitudes have softened considerably after a century of Catholic ministry in the region. Even conservative Protestant ministers, he said, have become more accepting.

The Rev. Paul Badgett, pastor of First Baptist Church in Pikeville and president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said Catholics and Baptists have a civil coexistence in the mountains.

"From a theological standpoint, we're not together," he said. "But there are many things we do stand together on. They take a strong stand for life. We do, too. They take a strong stand on morality. We do, too. We both have a strong concern for social justice."

Even so, it's the rare occasion when the two religious groups share a pulpit in central Appalachia. That happened in Letcher County earlier this year, when Rausch and the Rev. Steve Peake, a Baptist pastor, led an ecumenical prayer service for environmentally active Catholics and Protestants.

Rausch recognized the significance of the event. When he first came to the region, he said, many Protestants preached against Catholicism from their pulpits and on the radio.

"The walls of prejudice are being torn down, brick by brick, little by little," said the Rev. Bob Damron, a Catholic priest in Prestonsburg who grew up a Baptist in a small eastern Kentucky community. "All the myths about Catholics are being eroded."

Damron said devout Catholics who reflect the love of God are making the difference.

"Because we have such a small number of Catholics, your faith is going to be forever challenged," he said. "You're going to live your life under a microscope. People are watching you. And they're seeing that the Catholic church is reaching out to help people."

Beth Davies, a nun who moved from New York City to St. Charles, Va., 30 years ago, said she has witnessed the change in the religious atmosphere. She said she has found acceptance in the coalfields after a difficult start.

People were suspicious of Catholics and didn't want them living in their neighborhoods, Davies said.

"For the first several years, we had a Baptist minister in the community who would actually walk on the other side of the street so he wouldn't have to talk to us," she said. "It was a new experience for me to be in a minority."

St. Charles had no Catholics before Davies and two other nuns arrived.

"One woman did share with me that if a Catholic had come into her home it would be a sign the devil could take over the house," she said. "There was a real fear, a genuine fear."

Despite such negative attitudes, the Catholic church has continued to minister to the people of the central Appalachians, providing everything from food to free medical care. They've opened child-care centers for single mothers and shelters for battered spouses. They've built hospitals and clinics. They've provided clothing and housing to the poor.

In just about every area of need, Pentecost said, Catholics have stepped forward to meet it, despite being a fraction of 1 percent of the population in the small towns.

"There's a realization that even if there's not a great number of our own, we have a message to live and a message to preach," said Rev. Steve Gallenstein, a priest in Frankfort who, until last week, served three churches in Pike County. "Hopefully we preach it by the way we live."

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