Utah's missions pose challenges to ministry
Friday, Apr. 22, 2016
Sacred Heart Mission in La Sal received a facelift in 2015 when some students from St. Francis High School in La Caņada Flintridge, Calif., spent their spring break refurbishing the interior and exterior of the one-room church. IC file photo
MONTICELLO — Mass is celebrated only once a week at many of the 19 missions in the Diocese of Salt Lake City.
That’s just one of the many challenges faced by the missions, which are served by priests who often drive many miles to minister to them. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops considers Salt Lake to be among the 84 Home Mission dioceses in the U.S. and its territories that “cannot provide basic pastoral services to Catholics without outside help.”
These services include Mass and sacraments, religious education, and ministry training for priests, deacons, religious sisters and lay people.
Father William Wheaton knows firsthand the challenges of serving the missions in Utah. Seven years ago he began as pastor of Saint Pius X Parish in Moab and Saint Joseph Parish in Monticello. In the mission territory of southeastern Utah, Fr. Wheaton also is pastor of the missions of Saint Michael the Archangel in Green River, Sacred Heart in La Sal and the Four Corners Regional Care nursing home in Blanding.
Covering that territory means driving hundreds of miles – from Moab to La Sal is 35 miles, with Monticello another 40 miles south, then another 20 to Blanding. On the other hand, Green River is 50 miles northwest of Moab. From there, it’s almost two hours to the next closest parish, Notre Dame de Lourdes in Price, and still another two hours to Salt Lake City.
“We struggle because of the isolation that exists. We are located so far away that it’s hard for our people to travel and take advantage of the opportunities that are offered in the Wasatch Front,” said Fr. Wheaton.
For example, the diocesan Office of Liturgy recently offered training for ministers on the Sunday Celebration Absent a Priest, also known as SCAP, but that workshop was held in Salt Lake City.
“It’s great to have these opportunities, but for our people to travel four to five hours (one way) to get a two-hour training and then come back, most of the time it’s almost impossible, … and if you add the weather conditions, that becomes a real challenge,” said Fr. Wheaton.
The isolation leads another problem as well, he said. “Sometimes people get very frustrated here because it seems that we are forgotten because we are so far away. … Unfortunately, sometimes people in the rural areas don’t feel connected to the diocese.”
That lack of connectedness is reflected in many ways, such as the fact that while the diocese hosts annual retreats in the Salt Lake area each Advent and Lent, the last Advent retreat in the Eastern Deanery was in 2013.
Living in a rural area can be a hardship, Fr. Wheaton said. “It’s like the forgotten relatives that are there, but nobody thinks of them often.”
When Fr. Wheaton first arrived in Monticello, the parish’s religious aid center was housed in a trailer with a door that wouldn’t close, windows that were stuck open and insulation coming out of the roof.
The church itself was 80 years old and was too small for the congregation.
“Luckily, we had a man from California (Allen Lund) who donated $1.5 million, and we were able to build a new hall and church,” said Fr. Wheaton.
Allen and Kathy Lund, from Los Angeles, Calif., have a large ranch between Blanding and Monticello. With their contribution as a foundation for the new St. Joseph Catholic Church, parishioners donated the money for the interior furnishings and the diocese purchased the land and pews.
“Construction of the new church and parish hall began in July 2014 and was completed last August. Mass has been celebrated in the facility for the past four months. The tentative date for the dedication is set for this summer, but will be dependent upon the appointment of a new bishop to the Diocese of Salt Lake City,” said Fr. Wheaton.
The Lunds also made a significant contribution to the repair of Sacred Heart Mission, a one-room cement building located on Highway 46. Last year, the Lunds hosted a group of teenage boys from a Catholic high school in California, who spent their spring break renovating the mission as a way to fulfill their service hour requirement; prior to their work it had been 10 years since the building had seen significant repair.
“Many Catholics in the United States don’t realize how many dioceses are struggling, often right next door,” said Bishop Peter F. Christensen of Superior, Wisc., chairman of the Subcommittee on Catholic Home Missions in a press release. “The home missions require our attention every bit as much as the missions abroad. Many Catholics don’t realize that their neighbors in the next dioceses do not have access to the same catechetical programs and Catholic schools that are available in a wealthier, more populous diocese.”
The Catholic Home Missions Appeal will be taken up the weekend of April 24.