Smith County, Tennessee was founded in 1799, just 23 years after the birth of the United States. After 219 years, the county is still without a Catholic church or formal Catholic presence.

Smith County isn’t alone. More than 300 counties in the U.S., mostly in rural Appalachia and the South, exist without a Catholic presence. Glenmary Home Missioners, an Apostolic Society of Catholic priests, brothers and lay coworkers, is working to change that.

Father William Howard Bishop, right, and Father Raphael Sourd stand with Glenmary’s trailer chapel taken to “No Priest Land” in the early days of the mission to introduce people to the Catholic Church. (Credit: Photo courtesy of Glenmary Archive.)

Glenmarians are missionaries who don’t work overseas. They’re also known as the Home Missioners of America. They recognize and serve the mission need here in the United States.

Back in 1936, Glenmary founder Father William Howard Bishop published “A Plan for an American Society of Catholic Home Missions to Operate in the Rural Sections of the United States.” In it he wrote, “These millions of rural people are God’s creatures.…They are hungering for the truths of the Gospel and they have a claim upon us.”

Glenmary’s primary ministry is to found and grow missions. After identifying a county where typically less than one percent of the population is Catholic, many have no church affiliation and poverty rates are high, Glenmary may solicit a bishop’s invitation to establish a mission. Often these begin in humble settings like storefronts, rented Protestant churches, or in one case, even a car port.

Priests, brothers and lay coworkers work alongside the community of faith until it can support itself and then return the parish to the care of the diocese. The missioners then move on and do it again.

Despite an absence of Catholic churches or ministries, there are still Catholics who call Smith County home. Guadalupe Franco and his family, for example, drive an hour each way to attend Mass at Glenmary’s Holy Family mission in adjacent Macon County, which it has served since 2003. Without Glenmary missions in these areas, Mass and the sacraments would be nearly impossible for many to access.

Serving the Catholic minority is a critical part of Glenmary’s mission, but not all of it. To a missioner, every person in their county is part of the flock, whether part of the church or not.

“Our pastoral team and mission community not only serve the Catholics living in a mission county, but they find ways to reach out to all the people in the county who are in spiritual and material need,” said Glenmary Father Dan Dorsey, former president of the society and veteran missioner.

In addition to caring for Catholics, Glenmarians look to evangelize the unchurched, serve the poor, work for justice and build bridges with other faith communities, many of whom look with skepticism at Catholics. Missioners will often begin an ecumenical ministerial organization with local pastors or join an existing one—if Catholics are welcome.

Brother Craig Digmann has made a habit of visiting Protestant churches. He has been welcomed at more than 140 communities. Father Frank Ruff has formed a relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention and has been attending their annual meeting for 50 years as an official Catholic liaison.

“When I meet my brothers and sisters who are not Catholic, we begin with what we have in common,” said Brother Craig Digmann, who ministers in Hancock County, Tenn. “I’m all about relationships. That’s where the door opens for the Spirit to really move.”

Glenmary’s service to people in poverty includes ministries like the Backpack Board of Bertie County, North Carolina, where Brother Virgil Siefker and others work to feed elementary school students by giving them backpacks full of food on Fridays. In Bertie County, 34 percent of the population suffers from “food instability,” which means a lack of regularly available nutrition or a need to sometimes forgo food in order to pay bills.

“Most of the children are relying on their families to take care of them, but the problem is they do not always know where they will be staying over the weekend or whether they will have food there,” Brother Virgil said. “This is a way to help them out regardless of where they stay.”

For almost 80 years Glenmary Home Missioners has been serving the mission territory their founder called, “No Priest Land, USA,” by bringing the Catholic faith and works of mercy to its people. Pope Francis often reminds Catholics to look to the margins. Glenmary has always done so, finding the face of God in those most in need.

“A flower is small, like the small, isolated groups that we minister to, like the little children,” Father Bishop wrote. “So small a flower is easily overlooked on the roadside. You hardly see it as you pass by. But pick it up and examine it; it becomes a thing of beauty; so, too, the country parish and the country child.”

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John Stegeman is the editor of Glenmary Challenge magazine and is a Catholic Press Association award-winning writer. Before joining Glenmary, John worked as a reporter and editor with The Catholic Telegraph, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He and his wife, Kelli, live in Cincinnati, Ohio with their three sons.