Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
February 12, 2001
Priests cherish rural rewards
Life in the country has challenges, but many benefits too
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — The work of a rural pastor is never easy, especially today when a single priest has to oversee up to six parishes and drive for hours each weekend to celebrate Mass.
The job is especially challenging in the winter when priests have to drive at night under inclement weather and on bad country roads. Other challenges include the multiplication of tasks and witnessing the pain rural Catholics go through when their parishes close due to the priest shortage.
Nevertheless, the job is rewarding and fun, say some of those who have been at it for awhile. Rural priests not only get to enjoy the clean air and the beautiful country scenery but also to experience the solid sense of community, solidarity and friendship prevalent in small towns.
"I love small town life," said Father Les Drewicki, pastor of a cluster of six parishes in the Olds-Trochu area. "I just find it a little bit more community oriented and a lot safer. We don't have as many break-ins."
Father Paul Terrio, who serves a cluster of parishes in the Villeneuve area, near St. Albert, also likes the fact that rural ministry allows for close contact with the people.
"You remember the names of more children and you see people not only at work but also at play in the community," he noted.
"In the small communities you get to know the people much quicker (than in a city parish),"noted Father Ken West, who served in rural Alberta for 18 years before becoming pastor at Edmonton's St. Thomas More Parish last summer.
"Smaller parishes even feel themselves as a kind of a family so you get to know people by name a lot easier. The biggest joy was that after a year I pretty well knew relationships, family members, who is who, and felt very close to them as a pastor. They really appreciated my being there."
Since his arrival in Edmonton from Toronto in 1982, West, 53, served in Lloydminster, Provost, Vermilion and the Castor-Stettler area.
The past decade has witnessed the transformation of the traditional country parish from a single entity with one or two priests to clusters of three to six parishes overseen by a single priest.
This transformation, brought about by the priest shortage, has also changed the role of the pastor from a do-it-all to a teacher of the faith. Today a priest may run three or four parishes and drive hundreds of kilometres to serve them but his role is more sacramental in nature.
While the rural priest still celebrates Mass, performs weddings, funerals and Baptisms, as well as teaching the faith, visiting the sick and attending meetings, in most parishes the laity do the bulk of the work, from sacramental preparation to finances to building maintenance.
It's still a lot of work for a single pastor but as West put it, "it isn't that bad as long as you're organized. Lay people prepare everything."
West realized the modern rural priest needs to plan ahead when he became pastor of a cluster of six parishes and missions in the Castor-Stettler area in 1994. He had to drive an average of 1,000 km a week to serve the area, which stretches 160 km along Highway 12. He figures that if he had not being well organized, things could have easily fallen apart.
So every time he visited a community for a meeting, he always made sure he had more than one item on the agenda.
"Driving at night was a challenge, especially when your vision is not that good," recalled West.
Drewicki, 47, who has served in rural Alberta for almost 17 of his 22 years as a priest, finds rural ministry rewarding. For the past 18 months he has been serving the cluster of Olds, Sundre, Didsbury, Trochu, Three Hills and Lumni with a total of about 900 registered families.
He puts in an average of 130 km a week just to celebrate Sunday Mass in the area. He also does Baptisms, weddings and funerals and in between he squeezes parish and community meetings, hospital and home visits and social events. He already has 15 weddings booked for 2001.
It's lot of work but Drewicki isn't complaining. "I have yet to meet somebody I want to trade places with," he said.
He finds great joy in being a rural priest, which allows him to work with Scripture and to help people in various ways. "I find this very rewarding and fulfilling."
Gratitude has always been his greatest reward. "I find people grateful for what I can do for them."
Another reward is the country scenery, which Drewicki enjoys when he is driving. "I love looking at the open fields, at the farms and at the crops when they are ready for harvesting." He also loves the mountains, which he can see from his kitchen window.
But there are challenges. "There are times when the weather is so bad, you can't see the road. There are animals crossing and you can't stop because if you do, someone will smash you from behind."
Long distances are also a problem. Drewicki's parish cluster is 170 km from east to west.
The "multiplication" of everything is another challenge. Drewicki has to deal with four pastoral councils and many parish committees. It's common for him to have three meetings at the same time. The laity help a great deal but Drewicki wishes there was even more involvement.
But no matter how much Drewicki does, he often goes to bed feeling a lot is being left undone. "There are a lot of things to do but not everything is being done," he lamented. "I feel bad about that."
He also finds it hard to deal with the closing of parishes in the area, a situation that has hit rural Alberta harder than urban areas. Didsbury, one of his current parishes, will cease to have Sunday Mass by this summer.
"It is extremely difficult to deal with the ending of Sunday celebrations in small towns," he said. "This would not happen if we had enough priests to serve them."
Terrio, who doubles as a professor at St. Joseph's Seminary and pastor of Villeneuve, Calahoo, Mearns and Riviere Qui Barre, considers himself lucky to be ministering in the countryside.
"It's beautiful," he said. "The natural beauty (of the area) speaks of God."
But there is more. "You have more contact, I suppose, and more familiar contact with more people. It's a smaller community, therefore you know the individuality of the families. You remember the names of more children. And you see the people not only at work but also at play in the community."
To serve the 400 families in the cluster, Terrio, 56, celebrates four Masses each weekend, one in each community. The Saturday evening Mass at Villeneuve is often said by Father Gerry Gaudrault, also a Newman professor.
None of the churches is large enough to accommodate parishioners from all four parishes, he explained.
"We say the necessary number of Masses and we use the existing churches, which means more lay involvement. Instead of one music ministry group, we have four. Instead of one Baptism preparation team, we have four. Instead of one set of altar (servers) we have four. So it makes for more involvement and participation which is traditional here."
Terrio, who taught seminarians and did parish ministry in Brazil before coming to Edmonton in 1994, agrees that it would be impossible to operate a cluster of parishes without being disciplined and having lay involvement.
Allowing lay people to fulfill their baptismal role frees Terrio to fulfill his teaching and sacramental duties as well as to meet with parishioners. "I want to be a people's priest," he laughed.
There is one disadvantage to rural ministry, though. "On the weekend, after Mass, you often cannot talk for long with the people because you have to rush off to the next church, except for after the last Mass."
Despite his love for rural Alberta, West is happy he was moved to a city parish. There is less driving and more company.
"It's nice to come to an office situation where there is more than yourself and maybe a part-time secretary," he said. "You have more communication with the lay ministers in the parish, you have people to talk to and bounce ideas off of."
City parishes also tend to have more resources as well as "lay people who have had the opportunity to have more training in their religion," noted the priest. However, the level of lay involvement and commitment seems to be similar.
"There is a lot of volunteerism in the rural areas and most of those parishes could not exist if they didn't have men and women who volunteer their time for almost every aspect of (parish) life, but the same is true in the big city parish. There are a lot of people involved here."
Who has more fun, the city or the rural pastor? "Probably all depends on your attitude," West replied. "I enjoyed rural parishes but maybe I am just in a state in my personal life where I am enjoying being here."
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