January 7, 2022

Seminarians’ wood-chopping work helps neighbors facing rural poverty keep warm

Seminarian Isaac Siefker, at left, a member of St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington, chops wood on Nov. 12 on the grounds of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad. He volunteers with Project Warm, an initiative in which seminarians and other volunteers collect, chop and deliver firewood for people in need in four counties around Saint Meinrad. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

Seminarian Isaac Siefker, at left, a member of St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington, chops wood on Nov. 12 on the grounds of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad. He volunteers with Project Warm, an initiative in which seminarians and other volunteers collect, chop and deliver firewood for people in need in four counties around Saint Meinrad. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

By Sean Gallagher

What does a seminarian do to prepare for priestly ministry?

Pray. Check. Take theology classes. Check. Minister in parishes, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. Check. Cut down trees and split wood.

Wait, what?

But that’s exactly what happens at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad—in addition to all of the other activities mentioned.

For more than 40 years, seminarians at Saint Meinrad have volunteered in what is now called Project Warm, which provides firewood to people in need in four southwestern Indiana counties.

They collect wood from donors in the area, split it up on the grounds of Saint Meinrad and then deliver it to people who need it to keep their homes warm.

In the process, the seminarians build up fraternity among themselves, gain experience in serving those in need while respecting their dignity and learn about the often-hidden challenge of rural poverty—all things that will serve them well when they begin service as priests in their home dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“It’s good pastoral formation,” said seminarian Isaac Siefker, a member of St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington. “I would say that I get almost as much out of this volunteer work as I do out of my assigned ministry. I’ve enjoyed the work. I love the manual labor. Even more than that, I love going to people’s houses when we deliver wood.”

Seminarian Tyler Huber, a member of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County in his fifth year of priestly formation at Saint Meinrad, has volunteered with Project Warm since coming to the seminary and previously served as one of its student managers.

As he approaches being ordained a transitional deacon, Huber recognizes how much Project Warm has helped him serve the deeper needs of the clients of the program.

“Yes, they’re struggling with poverty,” he said. “They’re needing resources, and we’re helping them in that way. But so many of them can just use someone to be present to them. That’s one of my favorite pieces to it.”

The ‘brotherhood of the wood lot crew’

Over the course of an academic year, typically more than half the seminarians at Saint Meinrad volunteer for Project Warm in various ways.

Volunteers are divided into three groups. One group collects wood from donors in the area by chopping down trees or cutting up those that have fallen and taking the wood back to Saint Meinrad.

There, other volunteers chop the wood by hand, usually with wood mauls rather hydraulic splitters, for several hours a few days each month. The wood is then stacked and left to dry for about a year.

A third group delivers wood to clients within 48 hours of a request being made.

All seminarians receive training for their work and follow safety protocols.

This work is second nature for Eli Yandow, a seminarian for the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., enrolled at Saint Meinrad. He grew up on a dairy farm just south of the Canadian border where his family heats their home entirely by wood.

“It felt like being at home out chopping wood,” said Yandow, the project’s general manager this year.

In overseeing all the work of the project, Yandow, in his fourth year of formation at Saint Meinrad, can see how it benefits the seminarians. He especially notices it in what he calls the “brotherhood of the wood lot crew.”

“Nothing brings guys together like sweating next to each other,” Yandow said. “We know that we’re body and soul. Sometimes, we almost get too caught up on just the soul.”

Siefker, in his first year of formation at Saint Meinrad, latched onto this lesson early.

“It’s just a strong bonding time, working and sweating together,” he said. “It’s an important part of human formation for us. It’s not just book knowledge. It’s about building character and growing as a person. Manual labor is an important part of that.”

In addition to spending time splitting wood, the seminarians also get together for fellowship during a monthly bonfire. They also are intentional about turning their work into prayer.

“We pray before we start the chops,” Huber said. “If we have chops in the evening, we’ll prayer Evening Prayer together as a group, or Daytime Prayer if we have chops in the morning. We’re constantly calling to mind the families that we’re serving.”

‘Zeal to serve’

Teresa Shephard and her 6-year-old daughter are one of those families served by Project Warm. They live in rural Perry County and heat their home partly with firewood.

While Shephard appreciates the wood provided by Project Warm, she also values the witness of Christian charity given by the seminarians.

“They’re wonderful people,” Shephard said. “It’s like visiting with your neighbors. They’re good home folk. They work hard packing in the wood. They’re good kids, willing to help out, with good manners, good workers. You don’t get that anymore.”

She also sees how Project Warm helps seminarians prepare for ministry to people like her.

“It shows these guys what life’s really like,” Shephard said. “They have to know what it’s like, what people are really going through in order to help them. If they’re not out there getting their hands dirty themselves, if they’re not putting themselves in our place, how are they going to help people?”

Benedictine Father Anthony Vinson, pastor of St. Meinrad Parish in St. Meinrad and St. Boniface Parish in Fulda, has led Project Warm since 2004.

He praises the “zeal to serve” that he sees in the seminarians who volunteer in the project.

“Many of them want to get dirty and have taken to heart what Pope Francis said, that they should ‘smell like their sheep,’ ” said Father Anthony. “That is huge.”

At the same time, he noted that it can take time and experience for seminarians to know the sometimes-fine nuances of serving people living in poverty in rural areas.

Father Anthony recalled a seminarian who was frustrated at the father of a family who returned home after hunting, carrying a gun and a bag, while seminarians were working hard unloading and stacking firewood.

The Benedictine priest who has ministered in rural Spencer County for 12 years knew that men like the one the seminarian saw often hunt to provide food for their families.

“I looked at him and said, ‘Did you ask what was in the bag? … That was their dinner,’ ” Father Anthony said. “I said, ‘Next time that you’re out there, get to know them.’ ”

Huber has enjoyed getting to know the families served by Project Warm through the years, and is happy to see how the initiative is beginning to open doors for those in need to receive help in other ways.

“The more you go to the same houses, the more you can build relationships up and the more you might be able to ask if they need something else,” he said. “There are carpenters in the parishes that are more than willing to help. That’s starting to be a piece of the puzzle this year.”

‘A certain level of pride’

In forging friendships with the families served by Project Warm, the seminarians are coming face-to-face with the challenges of rural poverty.

An important lesson for the seminarians in offering help to people in need living in the hills of southwestern Indiana is for them to do it while being conscious of the dignity of those they help.

“In rural areas, people like to be self-sufficient,” said Father Anthony. “There’s a certain level of pride there. It’s important for us to be invited into their story without pointing out their flaws.”

Living in poverty herself, Shephard knows well the careful approach that is needed in reaching out to help them and appreciates how the seminarians of Project Warm keep this in mind.

“We’re so used to doing things for ourselves that it’s hard to ask for help. We’re country,” Shephard said. “We do things for ourselves or we do without. It’s nice to have someone that we can privately go to for help that won’t get broadcasted all over town. It’s not like that [with the seminarians].”

Yandow appreciates the pride of the people the project serves. But he values even more the real physical need that is fulfilled by the seminarians.

“We dump a load of wood, and we know that that person is going to have heat,” he said. “If it gets really cold, they could die [otherwise].”

Yandow and his fellow seminarians see the connection between serving people’s physical needs with those of their souls.

“We know that, God willing, we’ll bring the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ to people in the Mass and in the confessional bring them his mercy,” Yandow said. “But we also need to be able, in every aspect of our life, to be the presence of Jesus Christ.” †

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