Winter 2014 is a winter in Caruthersville, MO I will never forget. It was so harsh that only the oldest of residents could remember anything comparable. There is much to remember about that winter we spend there but this is a single accounting of why I love being Catholic and knowing the length people will go to observe the special day that marks the beginning of our Lenten season of penance.
Sacred Heart Parish is the only Catholic Church in Pemiscot County. To a person who is used to 3 or 4 parishes in her California home, not to mention one in every town in the surrounding communities, one Catholic church in the entire county seems like a mistake. Was that even possible? And so I encountered what it meant to be in the Bible Belt. Even more remarkable was the fact that we shared our priest with another parish in another county.
One-half of a priest
Tiny Catholic presence
And thus I saw an example of faithfulness I will never forget.
That winter the snow storms, ice storms, and low temperatures were especially harsh. A few days before Ash Wednesday, the storm was so relentless I-55 was shut down. Miles of trucks crept towards exits that promised truck stop relief and abundant parking in fast food lots. For five days the truckers waited it out. Just as trucks could go nowhere, Fr. Jarek could not leave New Madrid to serve our Ash Wednesday service.
One of the blessings of living in an area of extreme poverty is the presence of a nun from the Glenmary order. Their mission is to set up and serve domestic missions in the most impoverished areas of the Southeastern U.S. It was our blessing to have the wonderful Sr. Darlene to take up the slack when Fr. Jarek literally could not get out of town and on the road.
The ice was so deep on the steps of the church that even the setting out of salt was insufficient to dissolve it and make using the steps relatively safe. So the service was moved into the parish hall where no stairs were needed to enter. Chairs were set up. Sr. Darlene prepared the service and Ashes were brought in from the church.
Pemiscot County, as of the 2014 census, had 17,650 people. Of that number, 2-3% identified as Catholic. That translated to no more than 529 souls. On that very cold and icy night, 60-70 of them made their way to the church hall to receive ashes. On a night when most stayed in out of necessity, those struggling few managed to make it.
The sense of community as we gathered together was unforgettable and comforting. We few who were able to to be present were driven by a force that was not to be denied. As we sat there in prayer and repentance, I'm certain that many had the same thoughts I was having There was gratitude for our strength and ability to join in this Holy night. There were prayers for the elderly, those unable to drive or incapable of driving. There were prayers for mothers of babies and young children who could not safely go out on such a bitter night. And so much more. The spirit of common purpose, prayer and desire flowed amongst us and I was reminded once more of how glad I was to be a child of God, worshipping in the Church He gave us, and able to embrace Him and be embraced by Him. On such a cold night I felt nothing but warmth.
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