September 9, 2011

Religious Education Supplement

Rural parishes face challenges and make connections to bring faith to life for youths

Youths from the Tell City Deanery pose for a photo outside the Carriage Inn, a restaurant in Tell City. The youths ate there after getting together for bowling. The youths represent the parishes of St. Augustine in Leopold, St. Boniface in Fulda, St. Meinrad in St. Meinrad and St. Pius V in Troy. (Submitted photo)

Youths from the Tell City Deanery pose for a photo outside the Carriage Inn, a restaurant in Tell City. The youths ate there after getting together for bowling. The youths represent the parishes of St. Augustine in Leopold, St. Boniface in Fulda, St. Meinrad in St. Meinrad and St. Pius V in Troy. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

For 34 years, Marty Williams made his life and living as a farmer, helping seeds grow into crops that sustained and nourished people.

Yet, even the satisfaction of watching his southern Indiana farmland come to life doesn’t compare to the joy he experiences when he leads youths in his rural parish to a deeper understanding of their faith and a closer relationship with God.

“I just enjoy seeing the kids discover more about themselves and their faith,” says Williams, administrator of the religious education program at St. Augustine Parish in Leopold in the Tell City Deanery. “I just try to be there for them, be a role model for them, and answer their questions honestly. I also encourage them to grow in their faith—be all they can be.”

While faith formation and youth ministry in rural parishes often provide fulfillment and results, nurturing young souls in “country” settings also offers challenges to youth ministers, parish administrators of religious education and pastors across the archdiocese.

“The simplicity of life in rural communities is both a challenge and a blessing,” says Father Scott Nobbe, pastor of four rural parishes in southeastern Indiana—St. John the Baptist Parish in Dover, St. Joseph Parish in St. Leon, St. Martin Parish in Yorkville and St. Paul Parish in New Alsace.

“You have a lot of extended families, a lot of people who are related to each other—even throughout the four parishes. The blessing is that there is a sense of being Catholic that’s lived out. The challenge is getting people to take their faith to another level.”

Another challenge is that many rural parishes have a small number of youths. Then there is the extended distance from their homes to the parishes—a factor that sometimes comes into play when trying to get youths together for faith formation events.

Similar to any parish in the archdiocese, rural parishes also struggle with the busy schedules of youths who are often involved in sports and other school activities. And some rural youths also have farm chores that include baling hay and taking care of livestock.

Many rural parishes also rely on volunteers or part-time administrators who receive modest stipends, according to Ken Ogorek, director of catechesis for the archdiocese.

Striving to overcome those challenges, rural parishes often succeed in the faith formation of young people by combining their programs and resources. Consider the example of several nearby parishes in the Tell City Deanery in southern Indiana.

Marty Williams’ youth group at St. Augustine Parish has connected with youths from Holy Cross Parish in St. Croix and St. Martin of Tours Parish in Siberia.

The former farmer has also formed an alliance with Faith Schaefer, youth minister at St. Meinrad Parish in St. Meinrad and St. Boniface Parish in Fulda. And further outreaches have been made to the youths of St. Mark Parish in Perry County, St. Pius V Parish in Troy and St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County.

“They come from different schools where they compete against each other in sports,” Williams says. “Our programs create a lot of friendships between kids who wouldn’t meet each other in any other way. By getting other parishes involved, they all come together and see it’s OK to be Catholic.”

Service to others also forms a strong bond among young rural Catholics.

“They like to work together, and they see it as a benefit to the community,” Schaefer says. “When we went Christmas caroling for senior citizens last year, the kids saw many people overwhelmed that they had taken the time to sing for them. They saw the tears, and how they were welcomed inside homes for snacks.”

Schaefer tries to extend that same caring approach to the youths in her programs. She has consoled a youth who lost a mother to cancer. She has comforted high school students who had a classmate die in a car accident.

“In a rural setting, in a small parish, we’re fortunate to know the youths personally,” she says. “There’s a trust factor between us. A lot of times, we just listen. I want them to know that there are people who care for them, that the Church and God want to help them.”

Ogorek sees that level of commitment in many adults who lead faith formation programs for youths across the archdiocese.

“These folks are very talented, and they’re very dedicated,” he says. “They’re doing very important work. They deserve our gratitude and support. To the extent that parishes can help them engage in professional and spiritual development, it’s a great way to show support.”

Ogorek also saluted those rural communities that have a tradition of setting aside Wednesday evenings for Church-related activities.

“It’s admirable,” says Ogorek, an Indianapolis resident. “I’m envious in a way.”

It’s just part of the way of life for rural parishes, according to Williams. At 53, he has been retired from farming for more than a year because he needed knee and hip replacement surgeries. But he has continued his work in youth ministry, a commitment he started in 2005 when the parish’s then director of religious education died.

“God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You need to step up here,’ ” recalls Williams, who now works as an assistant in a special education classroom. “I didn’t think I could do it. It was by the grace of God. With enough praying and studying, he hasn’t let me down yet.”

Williams won’t let down the youths of his parish either.

“I just hope all the kids in our parish will be involved,” he says. “It’s just special for the ones who are. If we get them interested, hopefully they’ll get involved in the parish. We have a lot of older people in the parish now. I hope to get our youths more involved and more active so our parish will get younger.

“I just want them to learn to grow in their faith and love their faith as much as possible—for them to know and love God.” †

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