Life in a country parish

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As you travel west through the Diocese of Arlington, the tall office buildings and shopping centers that line the highway gradually fade to grassy, open fields. When mountains frame the horizon, you might be close to one of the smallest diocesan parishes: Our Lady of the Valley Church in Luray, with 400 parishioners, or Our Lady of the Blue Ridge Church in Madison with 333. A little more than an hour away, Central Virginia’s natural beauty isn’t the only thing that separates it from Washington’s sprawling suburbs.

More than 1 million people live in Fairfax County, which is the largest in Virginia. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the majority of that racially diverse population is college-educated and the average yearly income is $112,552.  

In contrast, 23,000 people live in Page County, home to Our Lady of the Valley, and 13,000 live in neighboring Madison County. Less than 25 percent of the population is college-educated. The average income hovers around $45,000. Nearly 100 percent of the population is white. 

Statistics paint a stark difference between the diocese’s suburbs and rural areas, but residents, too, are quick to share how life is different in a country parish. Though less economically robust, the area is full of true neighbors.  

Our Lady of the Blue Ridge

Our Lady of the Blue Ridge Church is a simple building with a brick exterior and white walls inside. Behind the altar, light shines through a small rose window above a simple crucifix. Across the parking lot, Father James C. Bruse, pastor, lives in the rectory with his 24-pound cat, Turbo. Next to the church, the Knights of Columbus has laid the ground work for a brick prayer garden, which will raise the funds needed to replace the roof on the church.  

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Father James C. Bruse, pastor of Our Lady of the Blue Ridge Church in Madison, holds his cat, Turbo.

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Tim Walker has been a parishioner since 1991, a year after he converted to Catholicism. Since then, he’s sung in the choir, served as a lector and altar server, joined the Knights and helped maintain the church. “If you need something done, that’s what I do,” he said. 

Two years ago, Walker retired from teaching industrial machine mechanics at the Coffeewood Correctional Center in Mitchells, though he still teaches at the local community college. Nearly 200 of the prisoners he taught have not reoffended, he said. He likes to shop at the Amish grocery store for his many cooking experiments, some of which he shares with Father Bruse.  

The Knights of the parish, who belong to the council at St. Isidore Church in Orange, similarly play whatever role is needed in service of the parish and the larger community, said Walker. They’ve done odd jobs for Barbara’s House, a transitional housing program, and MESA (Madison Emergency Services Association), a thrift store and food bank. They do the cooking at parish fundraisers. And they help their neighbors.  

“We remove snow in the wintertime, pick up people and take them to the hospital or appointments. We volunteer our time and our service to do that, because there’s nobody else to do it,” said Walker. “We’re just so rural.” Though Madison’s residents may be geographically distant from one another, the neighborly concern is constant, he said.  

“I grew up on a farm and the farming communities were always tightknit because you don’t have all those things and you had to rely on your neighbor,” he said. “That’s what you see here. Everyone relies on each other to accomplish what they need — without question.” 

Rural Poverty

Northern Virginians get around by car, Metro, train, Uber, bus or bicycle. For Madison County dwellers, the lack of public transportation and the distance between most people’s homes and their stores, offices and places of worship makes traveling by car the only real option. It’s one of the many challenges faced by the rural poor, said parishioner Ruth Kulick.  

Having reliable electricity and internet access is a problem for everyone in Madison, she said. Though the cost of living is lower than in Northern Virginia, affordable housing isn’t plentiful and renters often are forced to replace broken appliances and make their own home repairs. As with much of the country, Madison is dealing with a serious drug problem, said Kulick. Father Bruse decided to put “No Trespassing” signs in the parish parking lot to deter drug deals at night. Police regularly patrol the lot.   

Kulick has been a parishioner since Our Lady of the Blue Ridge was founded in 1977. She taught religious education for 30 years and is active in community outreach. The work puts her in close contact with the plight of many of the county’s poor, including the disenfranchised descendants of those displaced by the creation of Shenandoah National Park in the 1930s.  

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Textile manufacturers such as Wrangler were once the area’s major employers, said Kulick, but after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, many businesses left as costs became cheaper elsewhere. “This part of Virginia was devastated,” said Walker. 

People live in Madison because it’s beautiful, said Kulick, and if they have a college education, they can live comfortably. But for the uneducated, job competition is fierce. “None of the employers hire for full-time, and no one has benefits. No one has health, no one has vacation, unless you’re with a school system,” she said. “Inside the Beltway is an entirely different world.” 

But it’s Northern Virginia Catholics, in addition to the generous locals, who play a pivotal role in helping Madison’s needy. St. Agnes Church in Arlington, St. Veronica Church in Chantilly and St. Raymond of Penñafort Church in Springfield regularly give donations of food, hygiene products, school supplies and Christmas presents. Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities’ St. Lucy Project also donates much-needed food.  

“We’ve always gotten support from the whole diocese and I don’t know as many counties that are as well-connected as we are,” said Kulick. “A great majority of what is done in this county is done through this church.” 

Our Lady of the Valley

Our Lady of the Valley Church, about an hour’s drive from Madison, sits right off Luray’s main street. Tourists are attracted to the mountains, nearby wineries and of course, the famous Luray Caverns. A branch of the Shenandoah River runs through the quaint town center, which has an antique store, restaurants, a bookstore, a performing arts center and a theater. Murals are painted on the brick walls of the shops. Tucked among the other businesses is the local charity thrift store, Page One, which was founded in part by Our Lady of the Valley in the 1970s.  

Debbie Snellings has spent her whole life in Page County. In December 1974, she and her husband, Burrous, were the first couple to be married in the fully fledged Our Lady of the Valley after its many years as a mission church. “Father (Charles A.) Ryan performed the ceremony 26 years after he performed it for my parents,” said Burrous, a science teacher at Page County High School. 

Burrous likened the Page County of his wife’s childhood to the “Andy Griffith Show.” It’s saddened them both to see many of the stores and factories close. But they still love the area and feel it’s close enough to major attractions such as Wolf Trap in Vienna or the Smithsonian museums in Washington. It’s not the “booming metropolis” of Front Royal or Fredericksburg, where Burrous grew up, he said. “I like the laid-back life around here.”  

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Our Lady of the Valley Church in Luray seats 90 people but the church uses the annex/ parish hall for extra seating during Mass.

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It’s been 42 years, but the church looks similar to how it looked when the Snellings were married there, said Debbie. The main part of the church seats 90, though a wing of the church, which also is used as a parish hall, adds additional seating. The opposite wing houses the sacristy, confessional and a meeting room for Knights, youth group and others.  Father Edward R. Horkan, pastor, hopes to add meeting rooms and an outdoor Stations of the Cross walkway in the near future.   

‘God’s coloring book’

When Kathleen Murphy and her husband, Dennis, moved to Luray nine months ago, the first thing they had to adjust to was the friendliness of the people. “It reminds me of back when I was younger, when everyone knew everyone and they waved to you,” said Murphy, the part-time parish secretary who previously worked at Holy Family School in Dale City.  

“We lived in our house for 25 years in Woodbridge, and once the children were grown, we didn’t really know our neighbors,” she said. “We’ve had more people into our house for dinner and gone to our neighbors’ houses more (here) than we ever did there.” 

As with the Murphys, many of Our Lady of the Valley’s members are retirees from Northern Virginia, as Page County has few native Catholics. The transplants quickly realize there are much fewer restaurants and clothing stores. The closest dry cleaners is 25 miles away, Father Horkan lamented. Murphy still drives two hours to go to her old hairdresser.  

Wildlife and livestock are more visible, too. “I was late to church one morning because the farmer’s cows got out,” said Sharon Booker, president of the women’s council, who moved from Northern Virginia in 2007. In Madison, Father Bruse and Walker spoke of spotting deer and bears in their backyards.  

But nature is mostly a great source of joy. “There’s such a serenity to the area,” said Booker. In the spring, the green leaves appear at the bottom of the mountain and slowly make their way to the top. When the foliage changes in autumn, they call it God’s coloring book, she said.  “It’s truly magnificent. You really can be aware of God’s miracles.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

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