Catholic Rural Life marks a century and plans to sow spiritual seeds for another 100 years

Friday, May. 10, 2024
By OSV News

ST. PAUL, Minn.  — April 15 was an unusually warm spring day in Belle Plaine, Minn. Jim Glisczinski’s worn farm boots compressed the soft, freshly unfrozen ground as he walked toward his new John Deere planter. The complex machine will help him plant his 1,700 acres more precisely and with less seed and fertilizer, if it works.

“This is one of the times you pray,” he said as he passed a barn housing heifers and hay bales. Behind the barns, soybean and corn fields spilled beyond the horizon. The steeple of St. John the Evangelist of Union Hill punctuated the landscape. Glisczinski attends Mass at St. John when he doesn’t go to his longtime parish of Our Lady of the Prairie in Belle Plaine.

For the past 100 years, Catholic Rural Life has ministered to Catholics like Glisczinski who live and work in a rural setting. As part of his involvement with the organization, Glisczinski hosts seminarians at his farm every fall to learn about farm equipment. The St. Paul-based national organization receives support from 80 dioceses.

Although it now has members in 45 states, CRL began with just one man. Father Edwin O’Hara grew up on a farm in southeast Minnesota, near Lanesboro. Fr. O’Hara attended St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul and was ordained in 1905 by Archbishop John Ireland.

As a young priest, he was sent to France to serve as a chaplain during World War I, where he met many young American soldiers from rural communities. Fr. O’Hara realized that although they said they were Catholic, they did not know their faith. He returned to the United States with the conviction that rural communities needed to be evangelized, said James Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life.

Ennis said that over its century-long existence, the mission of the organization has not changed – but the way it ministers has evolved. While it focused on establishing Catholic schools in rural areas in its early days, it now has many apostolates, such as providing retreats for rural priests, seed for farmers in need, community for college students with a rural background and educational opportunities for Native Americans.

The shortage of priests has taken a toll on rural America, with many parishes combining with others into “parish clusters” under one pastor. This forces rural pastors to travel between multiple communities for their ministry, Ennis told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“(Rural) priests are stretched very thin,” Ennis said. “They’re feeling a little isolated.”

To help overworked rural pastors, CRL hosts retreats to share best practices and provide rural pastors with a community.

The need to evangelize rural areas is “needed more now than it was 100 years ago,” Ennis said.

“Secularization has impacted rural (life) as much as it’s impacted urban areas, so there is a real challenge there; rural areas need to be re-evangelized,” Ennis said. “The need today could not be greater for ministry in rural America. On this hundredth-year anniversary, the emphasis is around celebrating the 100 years of ministry, but also sharing a vision for the next 100.”

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