LEXINGTON, Kentucky — With all eyes now focused on the havoc wrought by Hurricane Ian, the ongoing recovery from devastating floods that hit eastern Kentucky more than two months before has fallen out of the headlines.
Physical and monetary relief continues to arrive to help storm victims in the Bluegrass State, but there is another story of struggle and survival in Kentucky that goes on unabated.
People who live on the other side of the mountain and for the most part unaffected by the floods have lost everything with the closure of the region’s coal mines. And they had precious little to begin with.
Father Terence E. Hoppenjans, 90, knows the struggle of the people and communities of eastern Kentucky all too well from his decades of ministering to them.
Father Hop, as he prefers to be called, has long envisioned — and lobbied for — a “mountain ministry” to provide people in this region — the most impoverished in the U.S. — with almost continuous year-round help.
“I served as a priest in three ‘missions,’ which is what the small communities or parishes are called — that covered nearly seven counties, but also worked in two and a half additional counties for eight years,” said the priest.
He retired July 1, 2021, from St. Michael Church in Paintsville, Kentucky, where he began serving in 1997.
“I would celebrate Mass sometimes in six places per week, and sometimes more, with two associates,” Father Hop explained, describing the mission churches. “Catholics are so few in number,” he said, “these parishes cannot survive on their own.”
“When I first arrived, it (the area) was mainly wooden houses with cloth ceilings covered with paper on the inside, and in a lot of places (there was) no running water or electricity,” he recalled. “The coverings were used to keep out the cold air, but the quality (of the dwellings) varied in different places.”
At one point, Father Hop noted, coal mining “flourished in Pike and Breathitt Counties, but when the industry died, the people who had depended on it became unemployed and unemployable. They were out in the cold and dependent on government checks.”
He was ordained a priest in 1955 in the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, serving in several parishes that later became part of Lexington Diocese when it was created in 1988.
In retirement he has a big goal: to unite the Lexington/Bluegrass area “into giving this region the help that it needs.”
“In preparing for my retirement, I prayed about what God would want me to do and I came up with the idea that he wanted me to make our diocese truly a mission diocese. This meant to me that everyone becomes aware of the needs of the small infant churches that exist in most areas of our diocese,” the priest said in a March 25 appeal letter he sent out.
“With the approval and encouragement of the bishop (Bishop John E. Stowe), I am reaching out to the Lexington area to ask for volunteers to work in the missions,” the priest wrote. “One of the greatest needs there (in eastern Kentucky) is the maintenance of physical facilities — along with taking care of equipment and building materials.”
In an interview with Catholic News Service, the priest said he “raised millions of dollars between 1977 and 2022 from an appeal letter which I wrote and sent out all over the country.”
The funds have gone “mostly to help all of the needy in this area, but we also built two churches in different places, a rectory, a school and a parish hall,” he said.
He’s grateful to have received financial assistance and “helping hands” from outside the diocese, including from the St. Joseph Mission Workers, “who are very effective in their ministry to the poor.”
Father Hop added that he knows there have been some people from within the diocese “who have volunteered their help, but their total is nowhere near the number that we could potentially use.”
He said he sent out his March 25 appeal letter to Lexington parishes “and several priests did put it in their church bulletins,” but he said he has not yet seen “any physical response.”
“My mindset remains one of a constant readiness to help these missions — all 33 of them — and to help them keep up their evangelism,” Father Hop said.
“The diocese helps financially, but the people in these mission households are incapable of trying to help themselves; it is up to us (in the diocese) to keep all the properties up,” Father Hop said. “We need help from them.”
While describing help from “outsiders,” like the St. Joseph Mission Workers, as “very effective,” he’s really looking to get more people inside the diocese to take an active role in this effort.
Among those who know the region’s needs and share the concerns of Father Hop about how to meet those needs is Glenn Greenwell, a member of the Knights of Columbus Council based at St. Francis Xavier Church in Mount Washington, Kentucky.
He also is chairman of the Stewards of Appalachia, a nonprofit organization.
“We became a nonprofit cause in 2010, and have been aiding the mountain communities of David, Garrard and Louisa communities and in general everywhere there is a need,” Greenwell told CNS.
“This region is the poorest in Kentucky, and as we discussed one of the poorest in the U.S., when the mines closed, the good paying jobs were gone too, and now we bring a wide range of donations to its residents such as furniture and personal care items,” Greenwell said.
“First and foremost however, we provide necessary home repairs, while also delivering donations every month, and when we purchase building materials, any money left over goes to other service groups,” Greenwell explained.
Many Knights of Columbus go on the Stewards’ assistance outings, and are complemented by people from other churches in Kentucky.
Since 2014, the Stewards of Appalachia have worked through St. Vincent Mission in David, Kentucky.
“It (the mission) operates a food bank, home repair, and many other programs in this community and the surrounding area,” Greenwell said.
Father Robert Adam, 33, described some of the challenges of ministering to parishes in eastern Kentucky.
He travels between two parishes: St. Francis of Assisi in Pikeville, population about 6,642; the parish has 100 registered families; and St. George in Jenkins, population 2,203 or less; the parish has 20 active families.
“Traveling one way to a parish takes 40 minutes, and your car gets worn out fairly quickly; I celebrate daily Mass at St. Francis, adoration at both parishes on an alternating schedule, a.m. and p.m. — and two additional Masses every Friday and Sunday,” Father Adam said.
“Although the biggest physical need continues to be money, people here have long suffered from a sense of hopelessness, and they need a reason to live — to get out of bed,” he told CNS.
“What this area doesn’t need is a knight galloping by on “a white horse, but instead help in figuring out how people can become self-sufficient,” Father Adam said.
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Editor’s Note: Those interested in volunteering home repair skills they have should sent a letter to Father Terence Hoppenjans, 2724 Green Valley Ct., Lexington KY, 40511 or call him at (859) 309-3474.