|PROFILE August 8,
2011 | Volume 86, Number 21
Mary’s, Coeburn, and St. Therese in St. Paul:
‘A great love among the people’
The Appalachian mountain towns of Coeburn and St. Paul are not
growing, and neither are their already-small Catholic churches.
St. Mary’s in Coeburn and St. Therese in St. Paul are 12 miles apart
in the coalfields of Wise County. They have 50 members between them.
About 35 regularly attend weekend Mass. So the celebrations are
Arriving at St. Mary’s for Saturday evening Mass is like walking into
someone’s home. Parishioners are gathered inside around the door and
warmly introduce themselves and each other to visitors.
It’s not a formal greeting committee. The members just happen to be
standing there catching up on the week’s happenings, and they are
pleased to see newcomers. They are happy to see each other, too.
a great love among the people,” said Hortense Mooney, a regular lector.
Indeed, most of the members know one another very well, having prayed
and worshiped together for a long time as a tiny community of Catholics
among an overwhelmingly non-Catholic population.
The two parishes were among several in far southwest Virginia
established by the Glenmary order of priests who came as missionaries to
the region in the 1940s. They served what current pastor Father Michael
Herbert describes as “discreet Catholic communities” that formed when
many eastern Europeans migrated to the area to work in the coal mines.
Therese was built in 1949 as a mission of St. Anthony in Norton and
became a parish in 1954. During that time Glenmary Father Rollie Hautz
built St. Mary’s Church in Coeburn, officially established in 1955.
Father Mike, as he’s known to parishioners, now is pastor of both
parishes along with Good Shepherd Church in nearby Lebanon.
Although he lived and worked in Richmond for many years before being
ordained a priest in 2005, he said he especially enjoys the “very
personalized” ministry in these small, rural faith communities.
“It’s one-on-one where you are constantly dealing with every
individual in your parish,” he explained.
their Catholic faith in their beloved but non-Catholic community seems
to define the people of St. Mary and St. Therese where many are
retirees, often having moved “back home” after careers elsewhere. Father
Mike calls this a “blessed connection” to their birth place.
Lillie Peters of St. Therese is a typical example. She’d gone to
Michigan at age 18 to work in an automotive plant. When she returned a
dozen years ago, to the very farm where she was born, she brought her
husband Pete, a Michigan native, with her.
The Peters’ run the Neighbors Aid Store, a community food pantry and
emergency assistance organization that serves more than 225 impoverished
families a month.
Coeburn parishioner Sister Jackie Hanrahan explained, “The lives of
our members in the community are indicative of our Catholic faith. It is
a true witness that I think is most profoundly evident to others at
funerals, weddings and holiday events.”
Sister Jackie herself came in the 1980s to minister in the area as a
sister of the Congregation of Notre Dame. She has an obvious affection
for St. Mary’s.
While working in the area for years as a legal services attorney and
director of the former diocesan Appalachian Office of Justice and Peace,
she also has been the church music leader.
“This is my parish,” she smiles proudly as she talks with fellow
parishioners after Mass, “I live here.”
Hunsaker now lives in Norton but still occasionally attends Mass at St.
Mary’s where he grew up and was an altar server in the 1950s.
He recalled that when the church was established, it consisted of
only three Catholic families, the Hunsakers, Clays and Lawsons with a
dozen children among them. Those families are still represented in the
Dominican Sisters Margaret Flynn and Beth Jaspers also regularly
attend Saturday Mass in Coeburn. They live in Norton and run the
Advocate Center that they established 26 years ago.
As its outreach ministry, St. Mary’s budgets continuing financial
support for the center that provides direct health and housing
assistance to low income families in the region.
St. Therese’s social ministry is to provide the facility for the
Neighbors Aid Store in its basement and storage shed.
Having such small membership the two parishes can do little more,
financially, than maintain the church buildings and provide liturgy and
“We do what we can,” Father Mike said.
they participate in other ministries through “on-the-ground ecumenism,”
as Father Mike calls it. All the churches in these small towns are small
so it is natural for them to come together for charitable work as well
as special Christian celebrations throughout the year.
The latter includes a series of prayer luncheons during Holy Week and
a community-wide Thanksgiving service.
“These have been very well received,” the pastor said. “We have
different styles of worship, but it’s beautiful to see everyone come
together and blend with one another in spirit. In an area that was once
intensely anti-Catholic, we are now very appreciated.”
It works both ways. “One thing I like about it here is the mix of
people,” said St. Therese parishioner Frank Molinary. “You learn how to
live with different classes of people and people of different faiths and
Mr. Molinary grew up in St. Paul and retired to the community with
his wife Connie after a career with a railroad company that had them
living mostly in the Midwest. His mother Pauline, now 90, has been a
pillar of St. Therese. “She’s the godmother of us all,” laughed Father
Mike, explaining that church records of baptisms and confirmations show
Pauline Molinary listed time and again as godparent or sponsor.
||Father Mike Herbert was an
attorney and then a law professor for 17 years at the University
of Richmond before becoming a priest six years ago.
in rural southwest Virginian most of the time since his
ordination, currently pastoring a cluster of three parishes in
Coeburn, St. Paul and Lebanon. But the move away from the urban
scene hasn’t been difficult as he takes pleasure in the life of
the small church communities of the Appalachian mountains.
He also has been gratified by another aspect of his ministry.
“Part of my own work that I hadn’t anticipated but have come
to love is ministering to a lot of non-Catholics — not in a
formal way, but just in daily ministry,” he said.
Father Mike explained that he shares hospital chaplaincy
duties with other local Christian ministers and is on-call once
“Almost none of the people I see in the hospital are
Catholic. In fact, they are mostly fundamentalist Christians.
“So I’m dealing with people of a different tradition in a
very direct way. They are sitting with their sick or dying loved
one, and just for a few minutes I’m their pastor,” he explained.
“I’m not going in as a Catholic priest, but as a minister and a
Father Mike suggests that Catholicism and other mainline
Christian religions “are pretty intellectual” and “tend to look
down on” fundamentalist expressions of faith.
“Some of the criticism is legitimate,” he said, “but it is a
deeply held faith of millions of our brothers and sisters. I’ve
learned a little of their lingo and their viewpoint and
experiencing it with people as they are struggling, suffering or
dying has given me a profound respect for that kind of Christian
faith we tend to ignore or look down on.”
St. Therese parishioners enjoy sharing breakfast in the church hall
after 8:30 Mass once a month. Ms. Molinary and Debbie Laney usually
provide the spread and everyone shares in the easy, familiar
At a recent Sunday breakfast they discussed their sadness over the
decreasing population evident by the recent closing of the local high
school where Ms. Laney had been a teacher. She is from Connecticut but
her husband Danny is a native of neighboring Dry Fork.
Their daughter Sydney, 9, is one of only three children in the parish
(there are none at St. Mary’s), and attends Christian formation classes
at Good Shepherd Parish in Lebanon.
The population here began to decline with the economy in the 1960s as
jobs were lost to automation in the coal industry and the closing of
some mines. Many young people, like Mr. Molinary, left the region to
find work. Although he was drawn back by family ties and Appalachia’s
natural beauty, he still laments the fact that young people don’t stay
because of a lack of employment.
Dominion Power Company is building a large coal-fired power plant on
the edge of St. Paul. It brought in 1,600 construction workers
temporarily, but they will leave when the facility is complete in a
Father Mike said 75 permanent skilled employees will be hired to
operate the plant, “but we know they’ll all live in Abingdon.”
St. Mary and St. Therese are two of the five smallest parishes in the
diocese, the pastor said. The parishes are aging, and unlike Lebanon, 20
minutes away, new people aren’t moving in to the community.
“We talk about this all the time, very candidly,” the pastor
emphasized. “We recognize that we’re in a diocese that is looking at a
significant decrease in the number of priests. There are some parts of
the diocese that are growing rapidly and others aren’t growing at all.
question will become how many parishes will close in the next five
years? We’re aware of that.
“But we can’t roll over and play dead. So we’ve undertaken as much
renovation and improvement to our physical plants as possible,” he
continued, pointing out that much of the labor has been provided by
parishioners — particularly Caz Renkiewicz of St. Therese.
“We’re doing everything we can to maintain our facilities and improve
their functionality to make them more accessible for our people,” he