COLORADO SPRINGS. Submitting to and falling in love with God’s will was very gradual for me. I’ll never forget the first time I could envision myself as a priest celebrating Mass, giving homilies, and hearing confessions — it was exciting! As I pursued the seminary, I remember asking the Lord, “If it’s your will, open the doors,” and so far, he has. I am about to begin my third seminary year at St. Gregory the Great in Seward, Nebraska studying philosophy, having spent most of the summer at the parishes on the Eastern Plains of Colorado. I served four weeks in Cheyenne Wells and Kit Carson with Father Jason Keas, and four weeks in Burlington and Stratton with Father Carlos Gallardo.
These towns are on the outskirts of the diocese near the Colorado/Kansas border. The Eastern Plains has its own particular beauty, easily recognizable by the wheat and corn fields, blue skies and open pastures that you can see for miles, along with cattle, barns, towering silos, and wind turbines.
The parishes are small, the churches beautiful, and the parishioners very welcoming; and I noticed that even in the country, Catholics sit in the back pews. From the beginning, the parishioners accepted me with open arms. Every year, some of the youth from Burlington and Stratton write me letters, and send the seminarians what I call care packages — small boxes filled with candy, gum, sticky notes, and other items a college student might use. Through my visits to Burlington and Stratton, I met my pen pal Megan Burghart and her family. It was a blessing spending time with them. Another welcoming example of charity came from Annette of St. Charles Borromeo. While walking down main street to the grocery store in Stratton, Annette, who’s a dental hygienist, stopped me and offered to clean my teeth, which she did the following day.
Father Jason and Father Carlos have two parishes each, a combined 58 miles apart. During the summer, the seminarians visited Father George Fagan, who drives an even greater distance between his three parishes in Limon, Hugo, and Flagler. Without complaint, these priests travel their respective distances serving the people.
Because the majority of families work on farms and ranches, there are few small businesses and retail stores. A simpler life is required to live in these areas, however, simple doesn’t mean easy. During a visit with the Isenbart family, 18-year-old Micayla and her younger cousin Gage graciously showed me around their family’s ranch. They have steers, horses, chickens, pigs, and a little bucket calf, which is kept in a different area so it won’t get trampled by the larger cows. Because the calf is without its mother, the youngest Isenbart, Von, bottle-feeds the calf twice a day. Micayla spoke about the great amount of work her family does, especially her father Ed and Grandpa. Their tasks include things such as checking on the cows in the pasture by four-wheeler or horseback, grinding hay and rolling grain, feeding the animals, building fence, fixing wells, and maintaining equipment. She says, “At times ranching can be very difficult, especially unexpected moments such as moving animals to safety during a severe storm or caring for a sick animal.” She admits that she and her siblings help out occasionally, however, when emergencies arise, everyone helps out. During an evening dinner in Kit Carson, cattle rancher Barbara shared with Father Jason and I that, when wool was in demand, she raised sheep. After the people came out and cut the wool, they would come in from the field and shop in her basement, which was a store for them. They bought pants, socks, and other essentials.
Often, while passing somebody on the road one is greeted with a friendly wave. One afternoon in Cheyenne Wells, as Father Jason and I were driving along a dirt road, we saw somebody waving to us from a combine, a large machine used to harvest or collect wheat. Stopping, we walked into the field and met custom cutter Mike Strunk, a Catholic from Kansas. Custom cutters are contracted out to harvest crops for farmers. Though we didn’t know Mike, he invited us to ride in his combines, an amazing experience! Afterwards, Mike spoke about the miracle of watching crops grow in the openness of God’s creation, and the faith and reliance on God’s providence for favorable weather and good crops. Sometimes severe storms, especially hail, can destroy months of hard work. More than once, farmers spoke about praying for God’s divine assistance to protect their fields. One lady said that she sprinkles holy water on their family crops, and Father Jason says, he has blessed both crops and cattle.
Not everyone can afford custom cutters. Often during harvest, families work long hours operating their own combines. While Momma prepares meals, the older kids operate tractors which pull the grain carts to the massive combine machines. The wheat is transferred from the combine into the grain cart, which is later emptied into a semi-truck. I love the stories of how families in the rural areas work together, which I believe builds strong family bonds.
For entertainment, there are pools, parks, movie theaters, and golf courses. Annually, Burlington hosts the Kit Carson County Fair where the community gathers for the rodeo, amusement rides, eats, and live music. For the parish’s largest fundraiser, Saint Catherine uses one of the kitchens on the fairgrounds to prepare food and beverages for the crowds. The Keeler family and Deacon Norbert Ohnmacht help to organize the Country Kitchen. Some parishioners prepare homemade pies and side dishes to sell, while other volunteers work the different duties within the kitchen. It truly is a team effort. I enjoyed helping out because it provided opportunity to get to know the community.
The 4-H program is one of the of the biggest events at the fair. Throughout the year, the youth in 4-H exercise responsibility and work ethic by raising animals to show them at the fair. For example, this year Thomas and Weston Schaal raised goats by feeding, exercising, and cleaning the goats’ pen. At the fair, not only goats but pigs and steers are walked in a ring, and generous bidders buy the animals, raising funds for the kids. Often, when the buyers collect the animals, the kiddos shed tears as they say goodbye. The Schaals along with other families, put the sale-money into their kids’ college funds. The fair is a great family dynamic for parents and children to bond and for families from the community to come together and have fun.
Really, this is only a glimpse into the life of those in the rural country. I never thought I would love Eastern Colorado as much as I did. To the parishioners of Sacred Heart, St. Augustine, St. Charles, and St. Catherine, whether it was a visit to your home, a dinner or meal, a conversation, an encouraging word, or a simple handshake, I thank you! In walking with you, I’m reminded of how much I want to walk with individuals and families bringing them closer to Christ. If God grants me the gift of priesthood someday, it would be a blessing to serve you.