Program gives seminarians a taste of farm life, ministry joys and challenges

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

As part of its outreach, Catholic Rural Life developed a rural ministry practicum, a weeklong workshop held each summer at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity for seminarians entering their third year of theological studies.

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St. Cloud seminarian Derek Wiechmann, right, visits the farm of Jim Glisczinski in Belle Plaine, Minn., Aug. 12 as part of the Rural Life Practicum. Photo by Dave Hrbacek/For The Visitor

For half the week, seminarians participate in classroom training led by Christopher Thompson, academic dean at the seminary, and CRL executive director Jim Ennis.

“The intent is to help prepare future priests for ministry in rural areas by looking at the context of rural life and addressing some ministry challenges that priests who serve in rural areas might face,” Ennis said.

It is likely that many of the future priests will cover two, three or even more parishes at a time, he said.

“We talk about how to work within that structure, and we provide a basic understanding of rural issues and what is happening in agriculture that can help inform them,” he said.

Being with the people

This year, Ennis invited Father Gregory Mastey to present at the practicum. His firsthand experience as the pastor of the four parishes in Opole, St. Anna, St. Wendel and Holdingford as well as growing up on a farm near Gilman made him an ideal choice to speak on the joys and challenges of rural life. He also spoke about the New Evangelization in the rural context.

“The most important thing I want the seminarians to know is that Jesus is part of the daily ordinary stuff we are doing. It’s not just preaching to the people, it’s living with them and walking side by side with them in their daily lives,” Father Mastey said.

“It is also important to open the eyes of our future pastoral ministers to the realities of rural life,” he added. “To teach them how to be a voice for the people, how to minister to them most effectively, how to give them hope, yet speak the truth about the hardships in this way of life.”

Father Mastey, who has served in 18 parishes around the diocese, has been a CRL board member for five years.

“Rural life is about family, about food, about vocations, about faith, about traditions, about a slower pace of life, about intentionality, about love for animals and land, about a sacred call to work side by side with the Creator on a daily basis and have stories to tell about it,” Father Mastey said.

And that’s what the seminarians heard on the remaining days of the course when they traveled to two area farms.
Family affair

St. Cloud seminarian Derek Wiechmann, who grew up on a dairy farm near St. Rosa, was among the students in the practicum.
“At the farm sites, we met the farmers and learned about the history of their farm,” Wiechmann said. “We asked the farmers about some of the current struggles they were going through and also heard from them how farming has been a source of holiness and an opportunity to grow closer to God through his creation.”

Wiechmann, along with 15 other seminarians, visited Jim Glisczinski’s farm in Belle Plaine and Fran Barten’s farm west of New Prague. The farm is part of 110 acres owned by Barten, a native of the Diocese of St. Cloud, who farmed the land with her late husband and their 11 children. Now, her son rents 100 acres where he raises corn and soybeans. The remaining 10 acres is a pumpkin farm — Barten’s Pumpkins — that has become a whole family operation, including the involvement of Barten’s 27 grandchildren.

“Everybody helps,” Barten said. “Whether it’s the moms or dads in the house watching the little kids or cooking meals, some have taken up ordering seeds, managing Facebook and the website, designing the beauty in the yard or giving free hayrides. All fall in where they feel comfortable. If you are old enough, you get an orange shirt and can help in the field. These are the family values my kids grew up with and now they want their kids to experience — just being here, working together and have fun doing it.”

The seminarians asked Barten a lot of questions about raising children, about her faith life and about how living in the country played into both.

Barten said one of the greatest gifts for her kids was having the opportunity to work side by side with their father. “That and having to rely on God,” she said. “When you farm the land, you rely on God to take care of everything. We need God for the rain and temperature, all the conditions. So when we do get a harvest, sharing it is a great joy.”

She also offered her own advice on how the future priests could connect better with people living in rural areas. “Go back to the old days,” she said, recalling her own memories of Father Edwin Oman, her parish priest in St. Stephen when she was a child, who would gather all the farmers together and bless their tractors before the harvest.

“That would be a great way to connect with the farmers. In St. Stephen, the farmers would gather in the north, south, east and west. Father [Oman] would come and say some prayers and give a blessing. What I remember most is how Father would just stand around talking to the farmers, to get to know them and to be there to listen to them,” she said.

Barten’s favorite question from the seminarians was, “Can we see inside your shed?” which came as a surprise to her.

“It was the most beautiful thing,” she said. “Dr. Thompson said the farmer’s shed is kind of like Jesus’ foster father Joseph’s workshop, where he taught Jesus. He worked there with his family, his children. It became the center of their work. Now every time I look at my shed, I see it a little differently.”

Like Barten, Wiechmann’s own experience growing up on his family’s farm taught him that farming can be a spiritual experience, and the practicum confirmed it.

“Driving the tractor up and down the field or milking cow after cow can be very mundane,” he said. “I think because farming is so repetitive, it can also become contemplative. A farmer is able to immerse the whole day in prayer while doing the ritual activities of field work or work in the barn. This [practicum] experience encouraged me to better learn how to cultivate within the life of farmers a deep prayer life and bring them closer to Christ.”