September 24, 2021

One shared mission: Mountain churches serve needs while facing great challenges

Rebecca and Harold Nixon

By Don Clemmer

When floodwaters devastated communities across Central and Eastern Kentucky earlier this year, Father Brandon Bigam found himself on an island. Literally.

St. Martha Catholic Church in Prestonsburg, where he is pastor, was itself largely free of damage, but most sections of the property — including the parking lot and the bridge that connects the parish to the outside world — were underwater.

St. Martha, Prestonsburg flooding
Flooding covers the parking lot of St. Martha’s in Prestonsburg in early 2021. Photo: Father Brandon Bigam

Today, the bridge is clearly not in good shape, complicating everything from people getting to Mass to garbage collection. The episode illustrates so much about the mission of Catholic churches in Appalachia: They rely on support from outside in order to carry out their vital work of serving others.

Material need

In the case of St. Martha, serving others includes outreach ministries overseen by the only full-time staff person, Jean Rosys. The flagship ministry, a thrift store called Martha’s Portion, receives lots of donations and serves all of Floyd County, where many face devastating poverty.

Father Brandon Bigam
Father Brandon Bigam

“Anybody is welcome to walk in the door and shop,” says Father Bigam. The shop also takes referrals from community agencies, such as for people who need to clothe their families. The parish also operates a giving bags program for cleaning supplies and hygiene products that people can’t get through food stamps.

A thrift store is also the biggest ministry of St. Paul’s Catholic Mission in McKee, where Rebecca and Harold Nixon serve as pastoral associates. Called the Attic, the thrift store provides jobs for people in Jackson County and offers a place where people can shop at very low prices.

“We are able to use items from the Attic to help families when they’ve suffered things like the flooding that we had earlier this year,” says Rebecca Nixon, who notes that they work with people in all kinds of financial straits, whether that’s helping people who’ve fallen behind on utilities or need connected to an aid agency.

The county is predominantly white and agricultural, with lots of single-parent or single-grandparent families. “We also have a very large drug problem,” Nixon notes. The challenges of addiction are pervasive in the area, as with much of Eastern Kentucky.

During the floods of early 2021, St. Paul’s parking lot sustained damage from the floodwaters, but the church and thrift shop were spared, to the community’s relief.

“When a natural disaster occurs, there is no other way to survive than to help each other,” says Rebecca of the experience. “This community just comes together.”

Gospel presence

The Church of the Good Shepherd in Campton is another Catholic community in Eastern Kentucky distinguished by its outreach ministry. Good Shepherd operates the primary food pantry in Wolfe County, serving about 130 households every month.

Kirsten Thorstad
Kirsten Thorstad

Kirsten Thorstad, who has served at Good Shepherd as parish life director since February, finds herself the steward of good work put in place by Sister Susan Marie Pleiss and the other women religious who served there before her. As she gets to know the area, she realizes the Catholic Church’s reputation precedes her.

“The Catholic Church is the place to go. They’ll help you,” Thorstad recalls others saying. “The Catholic population in this area is pretty small, but our presence is pretty large.”

Good Shepherd also has a thrift store, open three days a week, and gets three or four requests a week from people seeking assistance. This might be something Good Shepherd can help with, or it might mean connecting them with another entity, such as an agency or the sister parishes in Pittsburgh who adopt families in the area, sending them boxes every month.

“They feel comfortable here, and they know we’re here to serve them,” Thorstad says of the largely non-Catholic nature of those served. While the Church exists to evangelize, she notes that evangelization builds on human connection and relationships. “For some people, you can’t get to that point without taking care of some basic needs.”

Those needs have also included victims of flooding in the area. Good Shepherd received some targeted donations to help rehome people after the floods and so were able to provide a trailer for a family whose own trailer had been flooded to the roof. The mother of the family called Thorstad shortly thereafter to thank her and to say that no one had ever helped her and her family before.

But again, this is the Gospel, to “give drink to the thirsty, give food to the hungry, clothe those who need clothing, to visit the sick and those in prison,” Thorstad says. And she’s seen people join the Church because of it. “Being Catholic means being the face of God to others.”