Tag-team ministry reassigned to new parishes

May 4, 2009 by

EDITOR’S NOTE: Father Jim Hoover and Sister Marilyn Wall have just learned that he has been reassigned to three parishes in Central Kansas, effective July 1. Together they will leave Washington County, where they have served since 2002, and go to the parishes of Wilson, Dorrance and Hollyrood. This profile, researched and written before the new assignment was announced, looks at how their partnership developed and why it fits the critical need for rural parish ministries.

By Sarah Jenkins

Washington County, Kansas, may be the epitome of rural Mid America. Its 900 square miles butt up against an equally rural Nebraska county, and it is populated by 125,000 hogs, nearly 76,000 head of cattle, slightly more than 5,800 people, more veterinarians than medical doctors, and one Catholic priest and one Sister of St. Joseph.

Father Jim Hoover and Sister Marilyn Wall talk over lunch at the Pony Express Cafe, roughly halfway between their bases in the towns of Hanover and Washington.

Father Jim Hoover and Sister Marilyn Wall talk over lunch at the Pony Express Cafe, roughly halfway between their bases in the towns of Hanover and Washington.

Father Jim Hoover and Sister Marilyn Wall have served what they call “the Catholic community of Washington County” as a team for seven years. There are four active parishes — in the county seat of Washington, as well as the towns of Hanover. Greenleaf and Morrowville — but Sister Marilyn says the 500 Catholic families scattered across the county are a practical lot; they attend whichever of the churches is most convenient at any given moment. There may be someone who catches the 5 p.m. Stations of the Cross at Sacred Heart Church in Greenleaf or the Saturday afternoon Mass at Hanover’s St. John the Baptist Church, but is a member of Washington’s St. Augustine Church.

“They know we’ll be there, wherever they are,” Sister Marilyn explains.

That, in fact, could be the motto of their shared ministry.

This is actually their second stint working together to serve the people of a group of rural parishes.

Father Jim is a native of Junction City, Kan., who was ordained in 1960. He was headed toward becoming a canon lawyer when he discovered his love of ministering one-on-one with people in need. His sister Dorothy, meanwhile, had entered the Sisters of St. Joseph — the order Marilyn Wall entered the same year Father Jim was ordained.

It would be more than 20 years before they met.

Marilyn, a native of Aurora, Ill., spent her first two decades as a sister getting an education — including master’s degrees in both botany (Kansas State University) and social work (St. Louis University) — and teaching at the high school and college levels. Then, in the early 1980s, she returned to Concordia to focus on counseling and directing retreats at the sisters’ Manna House of Prayer. It was during those years she met Father Jim Hoover. It was also during those years she began to feel called to a different type of ministry.

Her good friend Sister Jean Befort was working in a rural parish ministry, Marilyn explains, “and I saw what she did, and I was touched by it — I wanted to be out working among the people.”

In 1987, Father Jim was being assigned to a parish in Beloit, Kan. “And before I took that assignment, I went to (Marilyn) at Manna to ask her to lead me in a directed retreat,” he recalls. “We discovered we had more in common than we had any idea.”

Father Jims sister is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph — but thats not how he met Marilyn Wall.

Father Jim's sister is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph — but that's not how he met Marilyn Wall.

They also discovered a shared vision of working with people in small parishes, and being available for human needs as they arise. They found they shared a core belief in the compassion of Catholicism, and the deep human desire to find and feel faith. Over time, they also developed a vision of working together, to join their separate strengths into one ministry.

Their chance to put that vision into practice came in 1994 when Bishop George Fitzsimons decided to give the partnership a try, in Oberlin, Kan., and two neighboring western Kansas parishes. Father Jim was assigned as the priest while Sister Marilyn served as what was then called a pastoral administrator.
The titles belie their actual responsibilities.

As Father Jim explains in his typically no-nonsense manner, “I do the holy ‘sacramental’ stuff; we share everything else.”

After eight years in western Kansas — and eight years of learning how to make their partnership work to best serve the people in three scattered parishes — they were appointed to Washington County and took on the even greater challenge of four parishes, a Catholic grade school and 500 families strewn across 900 square miles.

Two priests had served the parishes there, but the continuing nationwide shortage of ordained Catholic priests made replacing them impossible. So Father Jim and Sister Marilyn took on the task.

Father Jim, now 75, still does “the sacramental stuff,” including five Masses from Saturday afternoon through Sunday morning.

He starts at his home base at St. John the Baptist in Hanover with a Mass at 5 p.m. Saturday. Then he drives roughly 17 miles — and, depending on the changeable Kansas weather, it can be a very rough 17 miles — to the tiny town of Greenleaf for a 6:30 p.m. Mass at Sacred Heart Church.

Sunday morning starts with a 7:45 Mass at St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church north of Morrowville, some 28 miles from his home. Then it’s back 13 or so miles to Washington for a 9 a.m. Mass at St. Augustine before heading another 15 miles east and north to Hanover again for the 10:30 Mass.

“And that’s if there are no funeral preparations, baptisms, anniversaries or weddings,” Sister Marilyn notes, “and no stopping to talk.”

The nature of their ministry — and the nature of Father Jim — is that he will almost always stop to talk.

Only a dozen or so parishioners are in attendance on a recent Friday afternoon in the brick church in Greenleaf — but Sister Marilyn Wall is there, no matter how small the number.

Only a dozen or so parishioners are in attendance on a recent Friday afternoon in the brick church in Greenleaf — but Sister Marilyn Wall is there, no matter how small the number.

For 66-year-old Sister Marilyn, there is sometimes less routine but the same drive to be there, wherever she can reach out to people who may need her.
On a recent spring Friday, she begins her day by driving to Hanover, to help Father Jim give communion to parishioners in a nursing home, and to two more who are homebound.

Then it is back to Washington and the small hospital there, to be of whatever service she can be for a young mother and father grappling to accept God’s will.

The Mexican family has three young children and the mother was pregnant with another daughter. But they had learned the tragic news that the baby had died in the womb, and they arrived at Washington County Hospital where the doctor began inducing labor at 8 a.m.

Marilyn is there, to talk about faith and God and funeral arrangements. She’d found a prayer for blessing a baby and is having it translated into Spanish, and she has with her an inexpensive Christmas ornament of an angel holding an infant.

The baby’s name was to be Azul Celeste — Spanish for Blue Heaven.

By late morning, when it becomes clear that the labor is going to take much longer than hoped for, she leaves to drive a little more than halfway to Hanover to meet Father Jim for dinner.

A key to their shared work, they both say, is keeping in almost constant contact. They talk at least once a day — and more often three or four times a day — to fill each other in on the lives of their parishioners.

“Sometimes we can be like parents of teenagers,” Sister Marilyn says with a laugh. “People will go to him, and if they don’t like what he says, then they come to me to see if I say something different.”

But that doesn’t work with this team, Father Jim notes. “I punt, she catches — even if we haven’t talked about it.”

After dinner — during which they check in with a handful of parishioners who stop by their table at the Pony Express Café — Sister Marilyn returns to the hospital to check in with the nursing staff. There is no progress to report, but she spends a few minutes talking with the young couple and their translator and assures them she will be immediately there whenever they need her.

Then it’s over to St. Augustine’s to pick up books for a service later and to check in on the crew preparing a Lenten fish fry at the church. She trades quips with the members of the Knights of Columbus who are working in the kitchen, and praises the baked beans they will be serving later. Before she leaves, she is surprised by a parishioner who hands her a $500 check, “for your family,” the Sisters of St. Joseph.

After walking across the yard to her home in the rectory, Sister Marilyn checks her voice mail — still no news from the hospital – and spends a few minutes putting together the list of fish dinners that will need to be home-delivered early in the evening.

She’s surprised by a visit from three sisters from Concordia. They had been to Greenleaf to deliver a baby blanket — crocheted and donated by Marilyn, coincidentally — that was purchased a week earlier at a fundraiser at the sisters’ Motherhouse in Concordia and to personally thank another couple who had made a donation to the Catholic order.

Sister Marilyn offers communion during a service in Greenleaf. Father Jim does the holy sacramental stuff, he has said. We share everything else.

Sister Marilyn offers communion during a service in Greenleaf. Father Jim does "the holy 'sacramental' stuff," he has said. "We share everything else."

Then it is back to the hospital; still no progress, but she checks with the increasingly weary parents to ensure their children were picked up after school.
There’s one more road trip, south to Greenleaf this time, to pray with the dozen or so who show up for a 5 p.m. reading of the Stations of the Cross and communion. It’s a larger crowd than she expected on a Friday afternoon in this simply decorated brick church, and she’s pleased at the turnout. “They love this church,” she says of Sacred Heart and its people.

Back at St. Augustine’s, Sister Marilyn joins the crowd for the fish fry and greets everyone; these are the people who have made her a part of their lives.
Father Jim is there, too. They both ask about recent illnesses and family members and tease about the upcoming Final Four and hot local topics.

In their seven years in Washington County, the two of them have been to countless basketball games, Scouting events, high school plays and grade school concerts. “We aren’t separate from the community,” she explains. “We are part of the community — and the people here notice that.”

After dinner, Sister Marilyn returns to the hospital. The mother’s daylong ordeal is finally over, and Marilyn brings a blessing of the child. The baby’s father reads the prayer Sister Marilyn had translated into Spanish.

“This is where we truly touch people,” Sister Marilyn says. “At weddings, hospitals and funerals — that’s where we become a part of their lives, and they become a part of ours.”

This part of this day, and this part of these lives, is immeasurably painful. But the prayers, the thoughtfulness, the being there are all appreciated; you can see it in the father’s tired eyes.

“I love these people,” Sister Marilyn says, clearly speaking beyond this family to all the families scattered across this rural Kansas landscape. “And I love this place. We are one here. This is the kind of place Father Jim and I were meant to be.”

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