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Planting Seeds

Aerial image of a tractor plowing soy beans
iStock | credit: Nicholas Klein

Like a farmer working the land, Father Kevin Peters is cultivating new ground.

“Right now, I’d say I’m tilling the soil,” said Father Peters, who Bishop David Bonnar appointed as director of the Office of Rural Life and Ministry last year, in addition to his duties as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Canton and Holy Family Parish in Navarre and Brewster, and dean of Stark County West. 

Eventually, Father Peters is looking to “plant the seeds”—establish programs and resources to help clergy minister to the farmers of their respective parishes and help form connections between the rural and urban segments of the diocese.

“Our diocese is more rural than urban,” commented Father Ray Thomas, recently retired pastor of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Ashtabula, Corpus Christi Parish in Conneaut and St. Andrew Bobola Parish in Sheffield. Father Thomas has ministered in the two most rural counties in the diocese—Ashtabula and Columbiana. “We have cities, but everything around them is rural. More needs to be said about that.” 

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, Ashtabula and Columbiana counties are ranked the most rural of the six counties in the diocese—93.8 percent and 92.2 percent, respectively. Trumbull and Portage are classified as 82.6 percent and 81.3 percent, while Mahoning and Stark counties are 72.2 percent and 66.6 percent.

Even in those two less rural counties, Father Peters said, there are “concentrated rural segments.”

“The whole southern end of Stark County has a farming dimension,” Father Peters pointed out. He noted that he is working with St. Therese Church in Brewster—part of Holy Family Parish—to “create a space for the 4-H,” a network of youth organizations with a tradition of working with rural youth. He added that when St. Therese had a living nativity scene at Christmas time, “some of the altar servers would bring their goats and sheep with them.”

Southern Mahoning County also has rural communities around Sebring, Canfield and New Middletown,  he added.

Nevertheless, Father Peters contends, “If you look at any parish in the diocese, every single one has a rural dimension.”

He encountered that dimension in his previous assignments, when he was pastor of two inner-city parishes—St. Angela Merici on the East Side of Youngstown and St. Patrick on Youngstown’s South Side. For example, “In St. Angela Merici’s there is a pig farm on Oak Street.” Among St. Patrick parishioners, Father Peters continued, “is a man who has a horse farm in Hubbard.”

Assisting Father Peters informally is Father Tom Dyer, retired pastor of St. Ann Parish in Sebring and retired chaplain and president of St. Thomas Aquinas High and Middle School in Lousiville, who served as diocesan rural life and ministry director from 1985 to 2000.

At various times the diocese has sustained that ministry, Father Dyer explained, but Bishop Bonnar is in the process of re-emphasizing it.

He noted the importance of sustainable agriculture and having food sources within reasonable distance of the population of the diocese. 

“It been said that farming is important only to people who eat,” Father Dyer quipped.

From working with farmers, Father Dyer explained, he saw “something positive about that lifestyle. You are dependent on the weather—the sunshine, the rainfall. It’s a basic relationship with the elements of life.”

When serving as rural life director, he often noticed an unspoken assumption that rural parishes should learn what larger, more urban parishes are doing and adapt themselves. “Sometimes the people in the rural parishes would suggest: ‘Maybe the larger parishes should see what we’re doing and try to adapt it to their parishes.’”

One rural activist who welcomes the diocese’s efforts is Diane Brown, a farmer and parishioner of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Summitville, in Columbiana County, where she is a youth minister, lector, finance council member and cemetery committee member. Brown has also been working with Father Peters and the diocesan Office of Rural Life and Ministry in opposition to a proposed project to build solar panels which many in the parish and the larger community see as disruptive to their lives (See related story at www.CatholicEcho.org).

Brown describes herself as a third-generation farmer, who, along with her daughter and her daughter’s husband, operate the farm her late husband’s family ran for three generations. “We grow crops and raise cattle,” she said.

She appreciates the efforts of Father Peters and the diocese in developing rural ministry and in their assistance in opposing the Kensington solar project. “A lot of the time, we in the rural churches don’t have a lot of contact with the diocesan leadership and it’s hard for them to understand what we’re dealing with.” For example, she noted long drives between the church buildings in a parish, as well as “farm emergencies” that may pop up on Sundays.

Yet the parishioners still manage to keep their parishes going. “Our parishes might be smaller, but we are reaching people … We have 50 to 60 kids involved in the youth program, which is pretty good when you consider that we have 100 to 125 parishioners coming to our parish every Sunday,” she said.

Image of priest standing on an oudoor stage, with Catholics seated on benches in rows leading back from it.
As part of his plans to expand the office of Rural Life and Ministry, Father Kevin Peters hopes to organize Masses at more of the fairs throughout the diocese this summer. Above is a photo of the Mass that he organized at the 2023 Canfield Fair. Photo by George Houk.

John Magyar, an active parishioner at St. Mary Parish in Orwell, Ashtabula County, operates a farm near the Trumbull County border, along with his daughter, Rebecca Waldo.

“We raise mainly corn and soy beans”—with the latter going to Japan for tofu, Magyar said.

“Farming is something that you have to love,” he commented. “You can’t graduate high school and decide ‘I want to farm.’” Farming requires land and equipment as well as a willingness to embrace a certain lifestyle. 

“It’s a way of life. It’s not a 9-to-5 job,” Magyar said. “My father farmed all his life. My grandfather immigrated from Hungary and purchased the original farm in 1916.” For years he also worked in the steel mills in Youngstown for additional income.

He explained that Bishop Bonnar was scheduled to visit the farm in early April but the rain and the cold required him to postpone. “The weather is our first boss,” Magyar said. Despite the hardships, he loves farming.

A key aspect of Father Peters’ development of the ministry is building connections—such as with Catholic Rural Life, a national conference that seeks to promote Catholic life in rural America. 

“We [the Youngstown Diocese] are becoming the 28th chapter of Catholic Rural Life,” Father Peters said. He and others were planning to attend its national convention in Minnesota in May.

“I’ve also been establishing connections with the rural life directors in the other Ohio dioceses,” and getting acquainted with county farm bureaus as well as the six county fair boards, he said. 

In addition, “we will support parishes that are addressing farming issues or are facing controversies”—such as St. John the Evangelist Parish’s opposition to the Kensington solar panels project in Columbiana County, he said. 

“We’ll be encouraging priests to do farm visits. There will be plenty of resources for parishes to minister to their rural parishioners,” Father Peters said.

Another of his goals is to sponsor events “that bring the urban and rural communities together to see what we have in common.” Related to that, Father Peters plans to revive the celebration of Rogation Days (Days of Prayer) and Embers Days (Days of Fasting and Penance), which have a traditional association with agriculture. “It’s a good way of being reminded of God’s bounty.”

He also sees his office as promoting community gardens, and in conjunction with Catholic Rural Life, supporting the National Farm Bill, which Father Peters emphasized has wider implications than the name might imply.

“It’s not just corn and wheat,” he said. “It encompasses WIC (Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program), feeding the poor, and issues like food deserts. It’s not just about plowing fields.”

In the coming months, Father Peters plans to continue cultivating the field for expansion of this ministry. “We’ll be planting the seeds—eventually hoping that they take root.”

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