September 19, 2011 | Volume 86, Number 24
Heart, Big Stone Gap: Catholics
Like many Catholics living in far southwestern Virginia,
parishioners of Sacred Heart Church in Big Stone Gap must
take extra steps to be connected when their faith community
represents fewer than half of one percent of the area
But it can be and is done, they joyfully told The
Catholic Virginian in a visit in mid-July.
While there are only a handful of young children in the
parish and having a full-fledged religious education program
is not an option, parishioners share in the responsibility
of making the Sunday Mass a joyful experience for both
children and adults.
Melanie Coddington, regional minister with the diocese’s
Office of Christian Formation in southwestern Virginia,
frequently comes to Sacred Heart to encourage joyful
expression in the liturgy in leading the congregation in
song. She also checks on the Christian formation goals
parents are asked to share with their children.
“We have just a sprinkling of young children so we ask
the parents to encourage home study,” she explained.
school children do not have an organized parish structure
for faith formation. But they leave Mass each Sunday with
the Pflaum Gospel Weekly and age-appropriate catechism
booklets provided to their parents or grandparents who are
the primary educators of the children.
“The children and youth have something to connect with
the Sunday readings and Catholic teachings,” Ms. Coddington
said. “It’s to be used at home.
“More of the responsibility has to be in the hands of the
parents,” she said. “That’s not a bad thing.”
Preparation for Confirmation for high school teens of the
Big Stone Gap parish is done through cooperation with St.
Anthony Parish in Norton, said Father Timothy Drake, pastor
of both parishes as well as Holy Spirit in Jonesville and
St. Joseph’s in Clintwood. This past spring two young people
from Sacred Heart were confirmed with four of their peers
from St. Anthony’s.
the adult level, Sacred Heart in Big Stone Gap has a
long-standing adult Bible study which is coordinated by
Milly Tate. A group of usually 8 to 10 adults gather once a
week after they have read a chapter and answered questions
at the end. The discussion is usually a lively exchange and
various members of the group give their take on what they
read. Different topics have included the Rosary and
stewardship of the environment.
Like many in parishes west of Roanoke, most Sacred Heart
parishioners come from elsewhere.
Larry Jackson, who has lived in Big Stone Gap for 27
years, is originally from England and grew up in Barnsley,
“I’m a mining engineer, now retired,” he said, adding
that he has lived in the U.S. for 43 years, having come
first to West Virginia.
“I never felt like a stranger when I came here,” Mr.
Jackson told The Catholic Virginian. “My first Sunday here
in church was (Glenmary) Father Bob Rademacher’s last Sunday
and his wife, June had thought of moving to Florida or
elsewhere when he retired, but it didn’t happen.
“My wife and I said ‘where do we want to go when I
retire?’, but we thought about it for a while and both of us
said ‘Why would we want to leave and go anywhere else?’
“I love where we live,” Mr. Jackson continued. “We have
the beautiful countryside with the mountains and four
“And it’s also the people, the Catholic family I have in
Big Stone Gap. They are a big part of my life.”
A sign of the close-knit community among Sacred Heart
parishioners is the call list which has the phone numbers of
each family and is used when one of them might need prayers.
wife, June, is called first and then someone calls another
until everyone on the list is called,” Mr. Jackson
explained. “”It might be that someone is sick or going to
the hospital and we’ll ask ‘will you say a prayer for him?’
and of course, everyone says yes.”
Taking it one step further Debbie Samples uses her
artistic talents to design and make a card which she sends
to parishioners on their birthday or special anniversary.
Outreach to the wider community, much of which includes
many low-income families, includes a thrift shop known as
Rita’s Shop which sells used clothing at low prices.
Much of the clothing is supplied by St. Augustine Parish
in Richmond and St. Nicholas Parish in Virginia Beach.
Ireson and Orville Gates help unload the truck deliveries.
“We get one from St. Nicholas in the fall and from St.
Augustine’s in the summer,” Mrs. Tate said. “They send a
tractor trailer full of clothes, towels and sheets and all
kinds of odds and ends.
“We also get a nice load of toys for the children and we
give this to the children at Appalachia Elementary and
Powell Valley Primary and Middle Schools.”
The prices charged to customers are “real cheap,” Mrs.
Ireson said, adding, “I think it gives them more
independence to pay for it.”
“Then they can go home and say to their kids ‘I bought
this for you’ rather than ‘somebody gave this to me,’” Mrs.
Mrs. Ireson said that in the past she and her husband
have had 12 foreign exchange students, normally Catholics,
live with them for a year while the student attends Union
High School, a recent merger of the former Appalachia High
School and Powell Valley High School. Various students have
come from Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bolivia, and
“When there were Catholic students staying with other
families, we’d pick them up at the Methodist church on
Sundays and take them to our Catholic church,” Mrs. Ireson
The distance from Richmond is more than 350 miles. “We’re
closer to four other state capitals than our own capital in
Richmond,” Mrs. Tate said, and then cited Nashville, Tenn.;
Charleston, W. Va., Frankfort, Ky. and Columbus, Ohio.
The population of Big Stone Gap is about 5,000. Of that
number, normally only about 30 attend Sunday Mass at 11:30
there are a large number of retirees in the Big Stone Gap
parish, those in the work force include lawyers, prison
guards, teachers, and police officers. Many in the community
are employed at Wallens Ridge, a maximum security state
prison which sits on top of a mountain.
Money is tight for many families in Appalachia and this
is reflected in the parish budget. During the cold winter
months, parishioners now gather for Mass on Sundays in what
is known as Glenmary Hall in the lower level. It is named
for the Glenmary Home Missioners who provided the first
Catholic presence in the area.
building is heated by an oil-burning furnace and when
heating oil prices rose to high levels last winter, there
was not enough money to keep it beyond maintenance level.
Mrs. Ireson, a member of the Big Stone Gap parish since
1970, says parishioners are friendly and caring to everyone.
She recalled that when her husband had surgery, people from
the church would drop by with food and jam.
“It’s like a big family,” she said. “No matter who you
are, when you come into the church the first time, you
become family. We take care of each other.”
Mrs. Ireson had kind words for Father Drake.
“You have to admire Father because he is always there
when you need him,” she said. “He has four parishes to take
care of and he tries his best to take care of everybody.”