BRAC boom breathes more life into missionary work of the Holy Trinity Catholic community

Holy Trinity, Ala. — The Rev. Guy Wilson enters the brightly colored school room filled with children. Though they’re supposed to be paying attention to their teacher, who’s reading a book, the preschoolers spring to action. “Father Guy! Father Guy!”

They surround him, and the Catholic priest becomes even more popular as he starts dispersing lollipops. He helps some open the wrappers. Amid all the action, one toddler, Robert Jenkins, manages to sleep on his back in the middle of the carpet.

In the coming months, more students likely will be added. With new neighborhoods springing up in its ZIP code, this rural Catholic community — consisting of a Child Development Center, St. Joseph Parish and an outreach center — is bracing to add to its numbers. Rural south Russell County is becoming less rural, with the anticipated influx from Base Realignment and Closure.

The St. Joseph Missionary Cenacle and Parish is affiliated with the Maryland-based Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, an order containing ordained and lay people. Across Alabama Highway 165, nuns in the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity sponsor retreats and, like their male counterparts, minister in the area.

The nuns are also known as Trinitarian Sisters. Some keep blogs about their daily life and work.

The former was founded in 1917 by a priest named Thomas Judge. Women in missionary service, who would become affiliated with the group, arrived about two years later.

One way Wilson and others are preparing for growth: a second Sunday Mass, said in Spanish, was added July 1. (Wilson is bilingual.) And the community is applying for two grants for the Child Development Center, which is for ages 2-4. One grant will be for an updated alarm system, which the school considers an immediate need.

An anonymous benefactor gave a grant three years ago, to expire in two years, so the community is looking ahead. That gift was $500,000 over a five-year period and was earmarked specifically for underprivileged children. (Russell County’s poverty rate is 23.3 percent, according to 2008 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.)

The Child Development Center contains a diverse student population: one third are African-American, one-third are white or Asian Pacific and one third are Hispanic. Most of the students are on scholarship. Though run by Catholics, affiliation is not a requirement. In fact, the board is religiously diverse.

An elementary school with a 75-year history closed in 1998. The Child Development Center was founded in 2007. Beginning in the fall, formal retreats for families, in both English and Spanish, will be offered.

“Father Judge would be very pleased,” said Wilson. “He was a missionary in his heart.”

Men of the house

Wilson seems to be one, too. Not all clergy would go door-to-door, as he has, to inquire what his parish can do for local residents. That’s how the service in Spanish came about. Wilson has been here two years. He moved from Bainbridge, Ga., straight down the Alabama-Georgia spine. But St. Joseph Missionary Cenacle wasn’t new to him. Wilson, ordained 33 years, first came to the center in 1971 for a retreat.

He lives on the property with six other men, who are in various stages of training. A sign of the all-male household, fitting a stereotype: several recliners are lined up in a living space in front of a flat-screen TV, with the remote-control at the ready.

In addition to the work on site, they minister to inmates at the Lumpkin (Ga.) Detention Center; and the Russell County Outreach/Blessed John XXII Center in nearby Hurtsboro, Ala. It provides direct assistance “to the poorest of the poor,” according to Cenacle materials. The Archdiocese of Mobile assists in aid.

The Cenacle’s resident cook and her husband, Rocio Aleman and Javier Ponce, in the laity branch of Wilson’s order, also live on the 1,400 property. Aleman cooks five days a week. Wilson knows he’s spoiled. He raves about her cooking. He jokes that on the weekends, when he has to cook, frozen meals aren’t unusual. But he does keep a garden, with cucumbers and tomatoes.

A recent weekday found dishes of international flavor on his table, including curried soup with shrimp and Indian flat bread. The priest had a few guests for this particular noontime meal: Gaby Azhur and Helen Collins, who are helping write the grants and are former Columbus residents who have returned temporarily; Zada Feighner, a member of First Presbyterian in Columbus and a newcomer to the Child Development Center board; and Josh McKoon of Columbus, who was learning more about the St. Joseph Cenacle. A member of St. Anne Catholic Church, McKoon is running for the state senate in Georgia.

‘Save the child’

The room is decorated with portraits associated with the Cenacle, including Thomas Judge.

Born in Boston in 1868, Judge was ordained in 1899. From his early days in the priesthood, an intense interest developed in what he called “leakage” from the Church: hundreds of thousands of baptized Catholics, many of them newly arrived immigrants, lost to the faith through neglect, ignorance or the negative effects of their new environment, according to the Missionary Cenacle Volunteers Web site. Judge believed every Catholic is called to be a missionary.

He began organizing groups of lay people in the northeast in 1909. Their gatherings became known as “Missionary Cenacles” after the “Upper Room,” where it’s believed the Holy Spirit came upon the first apostles. He was first sent as pastor to the Vincentian mission in Opelika, Ala., where he faced discrimination in his Catholicism. Six others came to help in 1916. A group of women volunteers arrived in 1919, and their branch was canonized by the Church in 1932. The entire community is known collectively as the Missionary Cenacle Family.

Judge had a saying: “Save the child and you save all.”

St. Joseph Child Development Center, for one, shares this model. “Without early intervention,” Guy Wilson said, “some of these children couldn’t make it and would continue the cycle of poverty.”

Allison Kennedy, reporter, can be reached at 706-576-6237.