Church restoration leads to community pride in Appalachian town

October 29, 2015 01:55 PM

Appalachian_restoration_1By Theresa Carson

Never underestimate the power of a coat of paint or the repurposing of an old asphalt plot. There’s a new pastor in Richwood, W. Va., and the people have seen the transformation firsthand.

Earlier this year, Divine Word Father Quy Dang was assigned pastor of Holy Family in Richwood, a town in the Appalachian Mountains with a population of roughly 2,000.

In less than a year, Father Quy has refinished floors, replaced windows, repaired the church’s sound system and—perhaps the most visible restoration—built a prayer labyrinth where the old school playground, long since abandoned, used to be.

For some parishes, these changes might be a matter of rote, but not for Holy Family.

"The parish doesn’t have a lot of money—just enough to cover daily expenses," said Father Quy, who handles the bookkeeping and secretarial work on his own.

The restoration was funded by a bequest from Thomas Perkins, grandson of two of the parish’s earliest members, Katherine and Clarence Burch. Founded in 1901, Holy Family was established when Richwood was a booming lumber town.Dang,_Quy_Ngoc_09

"Immigrants came to work in the lumber and paper mills," said Susan Johnson, who has been a parishioner for more than 30 years and whose husband grew up in the parish.

Agents of the lumber industry recruited immigrants at Ellis Island, where they’d board the train and head straight to Richwood. Back then, the Marists nurtured the Catholic community. When the Marists left in 2005, a diocesan priest took over until the bishop made arrangements for the Divine Word Missionaries to work in the community.

"Holy Family is a big part of the community," Johnson said. "It is one of the vibrant churches in town."

That tradition continues.

"For three decades, parishioners have been arguing about what to do with the old school playground," Johnson said. "Father Quy came and announced what was going to be done. Everyone is thrilled with it."

From day one, landscaping has been at the top of Father Quy’s list.

"I told the people I’m here to serve them," said Father Quy, who grew up in Vietnam. "God is deserving of our best. I try to make the worship place as beautiful as possible. I told them from the beginning, I am going to do something with that ugly playground."

And so he did. The missionary priest did most of the manual labor himself: removing the four-inch thick blacktop, leveling the rock underneath and filling the plot with several tons of topsoil so that plants can grow.

Johnson noted that Father Quy is very independent, but that he did accept help from the Seabolt Dobson Family. Trampus and Natalie Seabolt Dobson and their four children, who range in age from four to 16, built the white picket fence in front of the prayer labyrinth. The labyrinth’s focal point, a statue of Jesus as the Sacred Heart, came from Sacred Heart Hospital, which recently was torn down after flooding rendered it unusable.Appalachian_restoration_2

"You meditate as you walk through the labyrinth," Father Quy said. "The final destination is a statue of the Sacred Heart."

The town has fallen down on its luck because of the collapse of the coal industry, but this garden has inspired others to clean up their properties, Johnson said.

Many townspeople have stopped by to see his work, including ministers of the local Baptist and Methodist churches.

Father Quy’s next landscaping project will be the Garden of Our Blessed Mother. He also wants to build a food pantry for Richwood. The nearest food pantry currently is in another parish staffed by Divine Word Missionaries, St. Anne in Webster Springs, which is an hour drive from Richwood.

"I need to make [the building] look beautiful before I put it in," said Father Quy as he also works to organize volunteers and encourages the women of the parish to form a ladies’ group.

Father Quy has worked consistently and lovingly, Johnson said.

"He just cannot sit still," she said with affection. "We like his decisiveness."

Back to news