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Pastor shocked by poverty builds Appalachian ministry

NCR Staff

Ralph W. Beiting was a 20-year-old seminarian who fell in love -- with Appalachia. But not before he’d first said no to his bishop.

It was 1946. Covington, Ky., Bishop William Mulloy had instructions from Rome to do something about Appalachia and wanted to send a mission team down to the mountains. He wanted Beiting on that team.

In those days, people in Newport, Ky., across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, regarded people in Appalachia with suspicion and disdain. But that wasn’t why Beiting refused. He was the oldest boy in a family of 11 children, and his carpenter father’s leg had just been crushed in a work accident.

“I told Mulloy,” recalled Beiting more than 50 years later, “that I couldn’t do it, that my family was poor and I felt I needed to get a summer job.”

Mulloy said, “Where did you go to school? Didn’t they tell you that when the bishop says something, you say amen?”

Said Beiting, in his 70s a powerful, erect and broad-shouldered man with a fine crop of smartly trimmed white hair, “I said amen.”

He went, and soon found himself street preaching outside hardware stores and county courthouses. And he fell in love -- with the place and the people.

Then he went back to the seminary.

A bright student who won a four-year scholarship to Cincinnati’s Xavier University, Beiting had passed that up to enter the priesthood. Ordained, he received his licentiate in sacred theology from the Catholic University of America’s theological college. Back in the diocese he was sent to teach and be an associate pastor. Not much later, in one 24-hour period, he lost both jobs and was told to report to the bishop.

He was 26. The bishop told him he was now a pastor and sent him back to Appalachia, to Berea, Ky. He had no church, no rectory and no congregation.

But he did have an old Chevy car and $41 a month priestly stipend. The parish had a name, St. Clare’s -- for Clare Booth Luce, writer and wife of magazine publisher Henry Luce.

What happened was that eight Catholic students at Berea College, who were not allowed to leave town to go to Mass, wrote to Clare Booth Luce asking her to help. She promised the local bishop some financial assistance if he’d open a church.

“Build a church,” the bishop told Beiting. In a region larger than Rhode Island, where only one person in a thousand was Catholic, Beiting over the next half century built 10 Appalachian churches.

Luce’s money bought a tumbledown house that Beiting set about restoring. He was not ill prepared -- he had a carpenter dad and uncles and brothers who were skilled craftsmen.

In Berea, Beiting stuck a sign outside the old house, “Catholic chapel.” And as he worked “clearing out debris, fixing up the porch and roof, people would stop by and ask to talk to the Catholic preacher.”

They needed clothes. They needed food. They needed fuel for the stove.

“I’d grown up poor,” said Beiting, “yet I went to their houses and was shocked by what I saw. Just so much poverty.” He went to his northern Kentucky family and friends for food, clothes and money. The bishop gave him a station wagon for hauling the stuff.

But Beiting needed money for church land, and to help people.

In Somerset, Ky., the young priest met an old priest who had rebuilt his church after a fire. Beiting asked him how he did it. The old priest said he’d gotten some telephone books and written to everyone who seemed to have a Catholic name.

“I thought, my God, not a bad idea!” said Beiting. “I got phone books for Baltimore and Philadelphia and Washington and sent a mimeographed letter to people with Irish and Italian names. It was the beginning of a mission fund.”

But Beiting wasn’t satisfied with the trickle of funds.

It was 1956. “I was driving back late one night, I could see the two mountain peaks and knew I was about five miles from Berea. The station wagon was full of stuff. This night there was a full moon. I thought, ‘Boy, you’re nothing but a truck driver. You’re bringing stuff in but you’re not changing anything. You’ve got to do something to change things.’ “

He talked to the bishop who said whatever you do, make it work.

Beiting in 1964 founded the Christian Appalachian Project. He used the word Christian because the area was notoriously anti-Catholic. “There was such prejudice against Catholics no one would have come.”

He lined up volunteers, Catholic high school and college kids, and in twos had them visit every house and ask people what they thought ought to happen, even their dreams and so forth. “The grown-ups were so cynical,” said Beiting. “They’d been promised so much and nothing ever happened.”

First, he had his entire family and his friends help build a children’s summer camp, Cliffview Lodge on Herrington Lake.

The people wanted a clothing thrift store, a Bible school that was ecumenical -- most didn’t have any religion -- and jobs. Catholic college student George Williams had grown up on a farm. Beiting found money to buy a farm and Williams ran it, creating farm jobs. The pigs and cows were donated by the Trappists at Gethsemane and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Another student signed on to build and operate greenhouses; yet another to start a lumber mill. More jobs. “We began child development centers before Head Start,” said Beiting, “We kept responding as the people told us their needs -- literacy programs, services for the handicapped.”

Beiting was traveling, too, in Appalachia -- and beyond. At Harvard, where he gave a talk, a student told him, “If I had a lot of money, I’d sure give it to you.” Beiting replied, “Boy, if I hear that one more time I’ll throw up.”

But the student had a brother-in-law who was in fundraising. Before long two fundraisers from Baltimore traveled to Kentucky to look at Beiting’s work.

They were impressed. People will give to this, he was told, “because you’re helping people help themselves. Not just Catholics will help you.”

Had Beiting $10,000 for a mailing? No. Well, had he $1,200 for postage. The fundraisers would take credit, “but the post office won’t.”

“How much will I get?” Beiting asked.

“Nothing,” he was told. “You’ll lose money.”

“I can do that on my own,” he replied.

“Ah, but you’ll write to the first donors, and then you’ll get money,” they said. And that’s what happened.

The Christian Appalachian Project these days is -- including donated materials and services -- a $70 million a year operation, said Beiting. The program’s range is amazing: 270 full-time employees, 70 full-time staff volunteers, working with tens of thousands of people in all 49 Appalachian counties as well as portions of Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. Project services are funneled through 112 community-based organizations.

The range is from services for elderly people to transportation. There are adult learning centers, financial aid for secondary education, job-readiness programs, teen centers, a domestic violence crisis line, home renovation.An in-kind donation program draws on 1,193 churches and community groups.

The project is widespread and ecumenical. Its current president is a Methodist minister.

Yet Beiting was essentially still a pastor. When, in 1981, the bishop couldn’t get anyone for the city of Martin, he asked Beiting. Who again said yes. The project board hired an executive director to replace Beiting, who became president.

Always willing to tackle the new, when the bishop wanted Beiting on the road for five years preaching missions, Beiting gave up the project presidency and is now chairman.

A half-century ago, he received his licentiate in sacred theology at Washington Theological College. Recently, Beiting was given the college’s alumnus lifetime service award, joining prior recipients such as Washington Cardinal James Hickey and the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

In the 1990s, Beiting built more churches and started saying no to the bishop. The years were closing in. Priestly retirement loomed at 65. Beiting demurred. Retirement loomed again at 70. “I sent a one-paragraph letter accepting followed by six paragraphs saying ignore the first paragraph.” The bishop made an exception. And again at 75.

Now pastor of St. Jude Church in Louisa, Ky., and St. John Neumann in Hode, Ky., the energetic church-builder is still on the road. Periodically, he attends family reunions. Nine of his 10 siblings are still alive, a sister is Notre Dame Sr. Mary Martha, and all live within 15 miles of where they were born.

And the family that once built a summer camp for Appalachian children now has 53 grandchildren of its own.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000