Catholic Herald Staff
Georgia in June was “muggy and buggy,” but Fr. Jim Bartelme didn’t mind. He was fulfilling a 30-year dream.
Sacramental minister of St. Boniface, Chetek; St. Joseph, Barron; Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Strickland; and St. Peter, Cameron, the priest rode his motorcycle 1,300 miles last summer to meet the parishioners of Holy Family Catholic Church, Blakely, Ga.
It was his first time in the Deep South.
“It was an experience for me,” he said. “The people were very wonderful, very warm.”
For more than 30 years, Fr. Bartelme has been donating money to Glenmary Home Missioners, an organization that promotes parish development in U.S. counties with little or no Catholic presence.
“It’s just part of my tithing,” he explained, “just something I’ve been doing since I was in the seminary.”
Through partnerships with established parishes, Glenmary mission churches gain financial assistance and support, and adopting parishes receive prayers, goodwill and a chance to learn about other parts of the country.
Fr. Bartelme’s longtime ambition to sponsor a mission church was satisfied in 2013 when his cluster decided to adopt Holy Family in Blakely.
Fr. John Brown is pastor of the parish, which is in Early County, and serves as sacramental minister in neighboring Randolph County. Miller and Clay counties, which have no Catholic churches, are also part of his ministry.
Unlike the geographic area of the Diocese of Superior, where 25 to 50 percent of people are Catholic, only about 1 to 3 percent of the population there is Catholic, Fr. Bartelme said.
About half of Early County residents are black, and many are Baptist. Holy Family members are white and Latino, but there are also parishioners of Indian, Vietnamese and Filipino descent.
“The parish is maybe a max of 100 people,” he said. “It’s about half, or a third, Hispanic.”
During his visit, only 30 people attended the English-language Mass, and about 45 went to the Spanish-language Mass.
Early County is agricultural – peanuts and cotton are key crops – and about 30 percent, in some places 50 percent, of residents live below the poverty line, he said.
There’s a major need for baby clothes in the mission area, so parishioners in the cluster collected and sent six boxes of infant and toddler wear for the people of Early County before Christmas.
“It was just a really amazing outpouring for that,” added Fr. Bartelme. “They need it down there.”
To fill the spiritual need, seminarians from Kenya and other African countries are on reverse missions in Georgia, and Fr. Brown is out on the streets, meeting people and reaching out to local churches.
When Fr. Brown arrived, Holy Family had no religious education, no first Communion classes and little presence in the community, he said. Once Holy Family is a fully functioning parish, it will be turned over to the diocese, and Fr. Brown will move on to another Glenmary project.
“It’s an amazing organization,” Fr. Bartelme said.
For its part, the Wisconsin parish cluster is under contract to provide a certain level of financial support to its Georgia mission.
“We actually exceeded that,” he added.
Beyond communicating – calling, sending bulletins back and forth and the like – the parishes don’t have any plans for specific mission activities in 2014.
“Where it’s gonna go? I don’t know,” he said.
Traveling to Blakely is a three-day trip each way, so Fr. Bartelme doesn’t plan to go back this year. He’d like to get his congregations more involved. But, he admits, “The logistics are hard. You can’t take a vanload of kids up there.”
Still, he’s optimistic about the partnership.
“I’m hoping it’s going to turn into a relationship that’s back and forth in many ways,” he said. “We’ll wait and see.”
To learn more about Glenmary go to http://www.glenmary.org/