Note: This story originally ran in the May 2016 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead | WKC
On Holy Thursday, March 24, 2016, Bishop William F. Medley and diocesan chancellor Kevin Kauffeld signed a decree establishing St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Todd County, Kentucky.
This parish was formed through the merging of St. Susan Parish in Elkton and SS. Mary and James Parish in Guthrie – and the parishes did not make this decision lightly.
Deacon Heriberto Rodriguez, parish life coordinator for both parish communities, said that in recent years both the Hispanic and Anglo presence at the churches had been growing significantly.
In Guthrie, for instance, there were about 15-20 Hispanic and 40-45 Anglo parishioners when Deacon Heriberto arrived in 2010. Today, there are 95-105 Hispanic members and 65-75 Anglo members.
Likewise, Elkton once had 65-75 Hispanic parishioners, which have gone up recently to about 85-95. Anglo parishioners have also grown from roughly 30-35 to 45-50.
The number of parishioners was starting to outgrow the two little churches, which were both located in what is considered Catholic mission territory, for the region’s population is less than 2 percent Catholic.
Due to the parishes’ close proximity they shared a priest – Fr. Frank Ruff, GHM, a Glenmary priest who provided Mass and other sacramental services.
“I had opened up a conversation at SS. Mary and James about needing a bigger place to better serve the growing community,” said Deacon Rodriguez. “It was moving forward but very slowly.”
Then, back in 2015, tragedy struck.
It’s now been more than a year ago, but Deacon Rodriguez still remembers receiving the Feb. 10, 2015 phone call.
An electrical fire had started at SS. Mary and James’ fellowship hall behind the church, and had enveloped both buildings.
Deacon Rodriguez jumped into his car and raced to the scene. He saw the local community assembled and working to remove precious items from the buildings before it was too dangerous to enter.
“People of the community – Baptists, Mennonites, Catholics – carried out the tabernacle, crucifix, statues, other items,” said Deacon Rodriguez.
Insurance later determined both buildings a total loss.
The memory is still difficult for the parish community, especially for those who’ve been parishioners their entire lives.
Barbara Fletcher Arms grew up in Tennessee, but with the Guthrie church being nearly on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line, it wasn’t far for her family.
Arms’ mother, Betty Fletcher, was a founding member of the little church at 313 3rd Street.
“My mother had donated the holder for the sacred oils,” said Arms, explaining that the oils holder was one of the items rescued from the fire.
Mary Covington King, another parishioner, explained that her parents were also “two of the original people who started the church” and had been involved in the parish’s Legion of Mary as well.
A generous gift
With the Elkton and Guthrie parishes already working together so much, the parishioners began to explore a new option: merging into one new parish. The idea flourished, and St. Francis of Assisi Parish was born.
“We are connected in many ways spiritually,” said Deacon Rodriguez, adding that once the decision was made, they began looking for property to build a new church situated between Guthrie and Elkton.
There were some delays initially since not a lot of land was for sale in the Todd County region, due to most properties having expansive fields for crops.
Parishioners Ed and Dorothy Slack stepped forward and donated a plot of their land beside their home just north of Guthrie.
“It’s only 10 miles from Elkton,” said Ed Slack.
He said that he had always wanted to “leave the world a better place than when I got here.”
His wife, Dorothy Slack, said she had realized that the parish was not going to get the property they needed anywhere else, and that she and her husband felt called to donate the land.
“We just kind of felt that we should do this,” she said simply.
St. Francis of Assisi Parish received its name for several reasons. One was after the humble saint himself. Another reason was for Pope Francis, whom the parishioners love.
A third reason was inspired by Fr. Ruff, whose first name is actually Francis, though he prefers to go by “Frank.”
Leobardo Lopez, a leader in the parish’s Hispanic community, said that “God is the one who gave us the name.”
“God is the one who says what needs to be done,” he said, expressing his sadness that the church burned down, but hope for a bright new future.
Deacon Rodriguez said that so far the construction plans are moving in “baby steps, but it’s working.”
“We have grown in faith,” he said. “We can bring the kingdom of God in this area and fulfill his will. We will open our hearts and our wills, and let his will be done.”
April’s Across the Diocese highlighted the series of events that led to the upcoming building of Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. Please click play to view below.