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Arkansans reflect on Scripture study after 50 years

Little Rock Scripture Study program satisfied lay hunger for Catholic Bible study

Published: January 24, 2024      
Courtesy of Cackie Upchurch
Former staff of Little Rock Scripture Study gets ready for the diocesan employee Mardi Gras party in 2013. They are Nancy Lee Walters (from left), the late Lilly Hess, Sister Susan McCarthy, Cliff Yeary and Cackie Upchurch.

When Father Jerome Kodell, OSB, earned a licentiate in sacred Scripture at the Biblical Institute in Rome in 1969, he never imagined what his education would lead to. 

Just nine years after the final session of the Vatican II Council ended in 1965, Catholics across the world hungered for a deeper understanding of Scripture and their faith. 

“(Vatican II) had urged lay Bible study, but there wasn’t much going on,” the Benedictine from Subiaco Abbey said. “Many lay Catholics were going to non-denominational Bible studies and found them very helpful, but, of course, the doctrine was not accurate, and they wanted to get a Catholic doctrine.”

Fred and Tammy Woell, parishioners at Christ the King Church in Little Rock, took the initiative to start a Scripture study in the Diocese of Little Rock. 

When the Woells found out Father Kodell had recently received his licentiate in sacred Scripture, they asked if he would be willing to help develop the study and reflection questions — he agreed.

“We had meetings with people at the Woell’s home to figure out what to do,” Father Kodell said. “We were really thinking about a study program for the fall of 1974 in Little Rock, and not about anything wider than that or longer than that. We were going to see how it went first.”

On the first night of Little Rock Scripture Study, 35 to 40 people were expected, but 150 people showed up. 

“They just kept coming in, and we were scrambling for chairs,” Father Kodell said. 


Spreading like wildfire

Within a week, Catholics in Little Rock began copying the cassette tapes recorded during the study. The Woells began printing the guides out of their garage on a mimeograph machine. 

“We began receiving requests to come to other parishes,” Father Kodell said. “A lot of people showed up everywhere we went. I could just see the electricity — people were so hungry for this.”

Father Kodell said the LRSS was unique not just for filling a gap in need for adult lay Catholics, but for doing it in a personal way. 

“Catholic studies in the past had often been very intellectual but not very personal,” Father Kodell said. “Our particular pattern with prayer and reading questions and then a lecture at the end of that was very effective.”

Soon the LRSS spread far beyond the diocese, as Father Kodell discovered six years later. 

“In the fall of 1974 I asked people (on the recorded wrap-up lecture) to pray for my sister who was getting ready to have her first child,” Father Kodell said. “I was in Chicago about six years later helping with Scripture study when a lady came up to me and said her group was praying for my sister, that she would have a safe delivery. And I said, ‘Well, that little girl recently started school,’” Father Kodell said with a laugh. “But they were getting copies of those cassette tapes and thought that they were contemporary, but they were already five or six years old.”

In 1978, the late Bishop Andrew J. McDonald created space at the St. John Center for the Little Rock Scripture Study. LRSS staff began recording videos at the UA Little Rock’s broadcasting facilities. 

With more time and space to produce and promote Scripture study materials, LRSS spread like wildfire, with demands from parishes across the United States. Catholics from all 50 states hungered for LRSS. 

“I have always felt that the thing that really gave (the Little Rock Scripture Study) a long- standing impact in the Catholic Church was our insistence that all studies be under Church authority,” Father Kodell said of the Scripture study’s impact on the Catholic Church. “You had to get permission from your pastor to do the study, and then all the materials had to be Catholic.”

As distribution of study sets rose in the thousands each year, LRSS had once again expanded beyond its expected boundaries. 

“The Scripture study was getting too big for the diocese,” Father Kodell said. “It was time for it to leave the nest.”


Leaving the nest

A publishing agreement was reached with the Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minn., in 1985 to continue publishing LRSS materials on a grander scale. Sales increased more than 90 percent from 1985 to 1987. 

Soon, LRSS became the largest and oldest Catholic Bible study in the country and was the most-widely used Catholic Bible study in the English-speaking world for nearly 30 years.   

Cackie Upchurch, who played a pivotal role in helping LRSS spread to the River Valley while she was in high school, became the LRSS director in 1998 after serving as the associate director for nine years. She was the first layperson and woman to lead LRSS.

“Everybody who’s been director of that program over the years has brought their own unique and needed gifts and brought what the program needed at that time,” Upchurch said. “I’m glad to be part of that line of leadership in it.”

Upchurch, with help from longtime associate director, the late Lilly Hess, and rest of the LRSS staff, formed partnerships to promote the Catholic Scripture study around the world.

“During the time I was director, we went into a partnership with a parish group in Australia,” Upchurch recalled. “We called it Little Rock Down Under. It was just one of the many places we reached.”

Upchurch, a member of Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Barling who retired in 2019, said LRSS continued to underestimate the crowds it would pull, often anticipating double digits and seeing more than 100 attendees at events. 

“I remember Father Daniel Durkin, who was a previous director at Liturgical Press when we became partners, saying that the fact that (LRSS) came out of Little Rock was kind of like Jesus coming out of Bethlehem,” Upchurch said with a laugh. “You would think it would come out of Chicago or Los Angeles or some place big and important. But God is at work in unexpected places, and with all different kinds of people. (LRSS) helped the Diocese of Little Rock establish itself in the Church in the United States.”

LRSS also was able to educate Catholics in Arkansas and around the country by hosting Bible Institute, a weekend conference each summer from 1990 to 2019, with nationally known Bible scholars.

Soon, LRSS study guides were translated into Spanish, Mandarin and other languages and used in at least 50 countries. When the “Little Rock Catholic Study Bible” was published in 2011, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor presented a copy to Pope Benedict XVI. 

In 2019, LRSS was sold to longtime publishing partner Liturgical Press to aid in its continued growth. To date, more than 2.8 million copies of LRSS materials have been sold worldwide. 

Today, Father Kodell reflects on how large the once-fledgling Scripture study grew.

“I was teaching here at Subiaco and doing some writing, but I wasn’t thinking of putting any kind of program together,” Father Kodell said. “They asked for my help, and I thought that I would only be doing it for a while. And then I realized that this is not my choice — the Lord is leading this. He prepared me to do this, and I need to give this everything I’ve got and see which way it goes. We had a picture at one time of us all hanging onto a rope with the Holy Spirit pulling us along.”

Jeff Hines, diocesan faith formation director, said LRSS has made an impact on the Church over the past 50 years. 

“Today, Scripture study is vital to a person's relationship with God — it's no different than it was back then,” Hines said. “The strength of LRSS is the community aspect. That is, people get together and discuss the Scriptures they have read. That's how the Holy Spirit teaches adults, through interpersonal discussion.”

Hines said LRSS was able to thwart modern problems through its unique design.

“Today, there is a danger that we can become consumers of Catholic content, watching YouTube videos and sharing links; that is not Christian faith formation,” Hines said. “True growth requires a community aspect. We must meet together and discuss. This is what LRSS taught us to do. We must not forget that skill. 

“I'll agree that the Holy Spirit does work through relationships on Zoom, but not self-study where we simply watch videos and share links. I'm grateful for the leadership LRSS gave us and I look forward to continuing to use LRSS studies for faith formation in small groups.”

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