Novena-attendees at the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal got a glimpse of the Eastern Province’s Alabama Mission through the eyes of a native son of Alabama, Fr. Bruce Krause, CM. He shared the history of our ministry there as well as his personal ministry of more than 30 years.
Fr. Thomas Judge, C.M. observed in 1915 how necessary it was to enlist the help of lay persons to carry the message of the gospel to the poor. There is a similar situation, today, as we see a dwindling number of priests…
The missionary thrust of the parish follows the example of Mary’s impulse to bring the Good News to Elizabeth and by extension to the poor. I must admit, though, that always finding people’s homes can be quite difficult at night and in the country side. I have been lost many a time, and did not possess the guidance of a star. Not even my GPS helped me at times to find folks. I wonder at times how Mary was able to find Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea.
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The text of his reflection…
I come to you from Alabama not with a banjo on my knee, but as a minister of the gospel wishing to bring to you the Good News much as Mary did to her kinswoman Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah. Or should I say her kinfolk? I am a native son of Alabama, and one of only two Vincentians originally from Alabama. The other confrere was Fr. Warner Kennon Walker, C.M., who came from nearby Salem. I never knew him, but his confreres would refer to him as “Dixie” Walker. I pray that we will see more vocations coming from Alabama!
At the time when the Vincentians established the Alabama Missions in East Central Alabama in 1910, there were two parishioners in Opelika and very few Catholics in the region. The area was every bit as rural as the country Mary had to traverse to see Elizabeth, and was comparable in size to the state of Connecticut. Opelika was chosen because of the trains, and while there are no longer passenger trains passing through town now, I can hear many a train whistle at all hours of the day and night. Like the transportation hub for trains, Opelika became the hub for the missionary work that took confreres to nearby towns of Auburn, Tallassee, Alexander City, Phenix City, Ashland, and Lanett. It was in Lanett and Auburn where I became acquainted with the Vincentians.
Last Friday, we as Vincentians celebrated the foundation of the Community in Folleville, France in 1617. I find some interesting and striking parallels between the foundations in Folleville and Alabama. Both were rural. There were few clergy. Those who were Catholic were quite ignorant of their faith, or had abandoned it for Protestant mainline denominations or Evangelical traditions. If you look in the phone book, today, you would think there would be many more Catholics judging from the last names that appear in the directory. Like Elizabeth from Luke’s Gospel, many persons were and still are eager to experience the Word of God and the hope it conveys to them. Yet who would bring this message to them? Fr. Thomas Judge, C.M. observed in 1915 how necessary it was to enlist the help of lay persons to carry the message of the gospel to the poor. There is a similar situation, today, as we see a dwindling number of priests. With the exception of Auburn and Phenix City most recently, the priests who now serve in the towns I mentioned earlier come from India and Poland. Unfortunately, many of the same priests in these respective towns and elsewhere have difficulty reaching out to an ever-growing Hispanic presence. In my parish alone over two-thirds of the parishioners are Latinos. There are 434 families registered and many more who are not.
It would have been inconceivable that St. Mary’s would ever outgrow the church’s seating capacity of 108 persons in 1910. Times have changed! Mary spoke prophetically of the needs of God’s people in her Magnificat. She possessed a keen awareness of the signs of the times in her response to the joy Elizabeth felt in Mary’s visit. The first confreres who served in Alabama must have done the same here at this Shrine and elsewhere. For example, the faithful who came to Mary’s Shrine here in Germantown heard of the needs in Alabama, and provided supported the construction of the existing church. Now, with attendance sometimes reaching as many as 180 persons for just one Sunday Mass, I can only imagine someone deciding to come through the roof much as we read in chapter 2 of Mark’s gospel. People then and now want to experience Jesus’ gift of life, especially through the Eucharist. I am doing what I can to make St. Mary’s the spiritual home for so many who come to her doors.
St. Mary’s is the only parish in the area that offers what I call full service ministry to and with Hispanics. Religious instruction is offered in English and Spanish. The bulletin is available in both languages. The secretary is bilingual. There is a diverse membership on the parish council. The parish is not without its challenges, though, as we strive to build bridges between those who speak English and those whose first language is Spanish. Sadly, like the prejudice of old toward Catholics and African Americans, this animosity has expanded to include Hispanics, and it exists both within and without the parish. Overcoming this bigotry requires considerable patience, a willingness to learn from each other, and a mutual respect for the distinct contributions the different cultures can bring to parish life. As I look about this country, St. Mary’s is not unique in this respect. The mandate of the gospel urges us to address all that separates us. In truth, it is sin, and we need to repent for the racism that exists in this country and around the world.
As I mentioned the parishioners are making efforts to bring peoples together. We worked side by side in the renovation of the church several years ago. This would not have been possible without the cooperation of so many. But ministry is not solely concerned with the structural needs of the parish. There is an outreach into people’s homes, including trailer parks some 25 or more miles away from the parish. Rosaries are said in people’s homes, and I am struck by the devotional life of the people who have erected simple shrines in their trailers. A statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe is often quite prominent. There are the Posadas which reenact the search of Mary and Joseph for a place to stay during the month of December. The missionary thrust of the parish follows the example of Mary’s impulse to bring the Good News to Elizabeth and by extension to the poor. I must admit, though, that always finding people’s homes can be quite difficult at night and in the country side. I have been lost many a time, and did not possess the guidance of a star. Not even my GPS helped me at times to find folks. I wonder at times how Mary was able to find Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea.
One of the joys of being a missionary is the experience of what theologians describe as “reverse” mission. That is, the missionary learns and receives so much from the people he or she is called to serve. I would have to say that this has been my experience as a missionary working among the Latinos in Alabama. Mary experienced much the same when she visited her kinswoman Elizabeth, and her Magnificat gives ample testimony to her immeasurable joy in what God has done in her life and in the lives of her people. Pope Francis captures well her sentiment when he writes in his exhortation, “Joy of the Gospel” these words:
“Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.”
My prayer is that we can learn from the example of Mary and continue her missionary spirit to God’s people in Philadelphia, Alabama and beyond. May God bless you always, and ya’ll come and see us in Alabama! Ya hear!