CONWAY -- For 131 years, Spiritan priests have served the parishioners of St. Joseph Church in Conway. Now in an effort to remain true to their mission, the order is assessing the possibility of giving the parish to the diocese to staff and taking on several other churches in the Delta region.
"Our order was founded in 1703 with the mission to evangelize the poor," said Father John Fogarty, provincial for the U.S. Province of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, based in Pittsburgh. "We merged the two U.S. provinces and now is a good time to re-visit our commitments and reshape our mission in America."
Father Fogarty, who visited Arkansas March 21-25, said there is an emotional attachment to the Conway parish because of its long history. Even so, the order wants to seek opportunities to serve the state.
"High on the list is the Diocese of Little Rock," Father Fogarty said. "Perhaps we can serve the diocese better at other parishes."
Father Fogarty said the Spiritans hope to empower people to change their situation for the better.
Father Fogarty said he admires Bishop Anthony B. Taylor because of the bishop's commitment to social justice and human development.
"We'd like to develop the Delta," Bishop Taylor said. "It is an area that fits well with the mission of the Spiritans. Maybe we as the Church can bring the good news to the Delta."
There are several reasons the Delta region, including Forrest City, Marianna, Brinkley and Helena-West Helena, was chosen.
"These are economically challenged areas with high rates of poverty and disadvantaged groups," the bishop said.
Additionally, this area has not seen the rapid influx of Spanish-speaking residents. Currently, the Spiritan order does not have many Spanish-speaking priests and cannot guarantee the continuity of service needed for a parish with large groups of Spanish-speaking members.
Further, the Spiritan order has a long tradition of working among inner-city African Americans in larger population areas such as Harlem, N.Y.; Pittsburgh, Detroit, Houston and Philadelphia.
"The Bible reminds us often that God speaks through the poor," Father George Spangenberg, CSSp, pastor of St. Joseph Church, said. "Our mission has always been about serving the poorest of the poor."
At one time, the Conway community could have been considered a proper place for the Holy Ghost Fathers who arrived in Conway in 1878 and served the needs of seven Catholic families in the newly organized Faulkner County. That small number of families rapidly expanded to 90 as immigrants flooded the area due to discriminatory policies enacted in the new German state. Enduring a severe drought, typhoid epidemic and tornadoes the mission struggled through the rest of the 19th century. Today the church has 1,965 families with a total membership of about 5,000.
Economically speaking, the community has weathered the recent recession and downturn in the economy quite well, attracting companies such as Hewlett Packard and Southwestern Energy to build facilities.
While the bishop and provincial are in serious discussions regarding the fate of the parishes involved, the decisions are far from final, Father Fogarty said. The Provincial Counsel for the Holy Ghost Fathers will meet to determine how to proceed based on Father Fogarty's recommendation and also the request from the bishop.
The bishop said a timeline has not been set because a final decision has not been made, but the groups are looking at changes around the end of the year.
The transition from Spiritan to diocesan administration should be seamless, Father Spangenberg said.
"We've always been in the service of the parish to the diocese," he said. "So there shouldn't be too many changes."
Bishop Taylor said he hopes to see a celebration occur.
"We should celebrate and honor the gift the Spiritans have been for 130 years to the church," he said.
Father Fogarty said the challenges of taking on something new usually revitalizes the community and brings new energy into an area.
"Really this is not an ending, but rather a beginning of a new opportunity to serve our mission and the state," Father Spangenberg said.
In addition to Conway, the Holy Ghost Fathers also serve at two smaller parishes in Conway County, St. Joseph in Center Ridge and St. Mary in Saint Vincent.
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