Bishop talks rural life with diocese’s new Council of Farmers

Photo Caption: Father Luke Spannagel, episcopal vicar for rural life for the Diocese of Peoria, shares a thought with Bishop Jenky as Mike Haag, a Council of Farmers member from St. John’s, Cullom, looks on.

By: By Tom Dermody

DANVERS — For someone raised on Chicago’s South Side and who has spent most of his nearly four decades of priestly life either on a university campus or in diocesan offices, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, can talk “farm” pretty well.

On July 19, during a visit to the Arrow D Farm just west of Bloomington, the bishop also listened as he met with the 10 members of a newly established Council of Farmers for the Diocese of Peoria.

“There’s some farm in my background,” said Bishop Jenky at the opening of a two-hour discussion with Catholic farm family representatives throughout central Illinois. The group met around a table in an outbuilding near where Marie Denzer-Farley raises Poland China show swine.

The meeting opened and closed with prayer, including for farm families “in stress in these days of drought.”

But before talk turned to a wide range of issues affecting Catholic rural life, the bishop told the group how he had spent a year of his novitiate with the Congregation of Holy Cross on a corn, wheat, and dairy farm operated by the religious community in Vermont.

“I liked working with the pigs,” recalled the bishop, who later showed that interest as he was introduced to swine on the Denzer-Farley farm.

The novices farmed all day long, he said, and the experience seemed “designed to make us very tired” as they prayed and worked close to nature. He remembered a favorite saying of his novice master: “We feed the animals and the animals feed us.”

Such a mutually beneficial relationship was also evident as the new Council of Farmers fed Bishop Jenky ideas, and he in return offered a few challenges in casual conversation around the table that ranged from politics to parishes.

“Rural people are a huge chunk of our diocese,” noted Father Luke Spannagel, episcopal vicar for rural life, who thanked the bishop for establishing the council.

The needs of rural parishes and families took up much of the discussion. Bishop Jenky said the nearly completed diocese-wide “Growing in Faith Together” parish study has reinforced his belief that “the way to keep some parishes vital is to keep them well connected.”

Deacon William Gray told how the parishes of Hancock County are banding together and sharing resources in several areas, including youth ministry. “And it works,” he said.

Council members urged the church to utilize technology to keep rural Catholics connected to their faith. Mike Haag, a member of St. John’s Parish in Cullom, said city dwellers often have misconceptions about farms — including that most are owned by corporations when reality is that they are still run by families. Bishop Jenky said a website on Catholic rural life might be a way to educate.

There was also discussion on how to maintain strong families in today’s culture, with the notion of a weekly “family night” strongly endorsed. And several council members thanked Bishop Jenky for his strong stand against the federal health care mandate forcing even religious employers to provide coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization.

“There is strong support in the rural community for what you’ve done,” said Steve Hettinger of Pesotum. “You’ve got to know we’re behind you,” added Phil Edgerley of Granville.

But Bishop Jenky’s first charge to the council was a specific one: “Get fired up about Fulton Sheen.”

Saying he had been told by high authorities during a recent trip to Rome that the sainthood cause for Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen might proceed quickly — Pope Benedict XVI declared him “venerable” this summer — the bishop invited rural parishes to specially join in the celebration if and when Archbishop Sheen is beatified.

“His family was all farmers,” said Bishop Jenky of the famed media pioneer who was born in El Paso. He invited the council to begin considering where regional celebrations could take place should beatification come, and to use the “moment of grace” as a way to “teach the faith, and spread the faith as we give thanks to God for such a holy man who came from us right here.”

The council scheduled its next meeting after the harvest. The drought worries of farmers around the Midwest were summed up by Edgerley who quipped about the harvest, “That shouldn’t take too long.”

Following are the members of the Council of Farmers and their background, in brief:

Following are the members of the Diocese of Peoria’s new Council of Farmers established by Bishop Jenky:

Mark Blindt, St. Patrick’s, Raritan, raises corn, soybeans and Angus cattle near Roseville. Serves on St. Patrick’s Parish Council and with wife Joan are Natural Family Planning advocates.

Mark Burling, Immaculate Conception, Carthage, started farming in 1979 and now farms around 3,200 acres including a 60 cow/calf herd. He is a parish lector and greeter.

Marie Denzer-Farley, St. Patrick’s Church of Merna, Bloomington, farms corn and soybeans and raises Poland China swine. Employed as a construction escrow officer with First Community Title and teaches second grade CCD at her parish.

Bob DePauw, Port Byron, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Rapids City, operates 200-acre farm with son, a certified organic dairy, and is a consultant with Midwestern Bo-Ag. Active in TEC and Cursillo.

Phil Edgerley, Sacred Heart, Granville, operates a grain and swine finishing operation with his wife Mary and are the fifth generation to own and operate their family farm. A parish trustee, he serves as the parish’s Annual Diocesan Appeal chairman.

Deacon Bill Gray, Sts. Peter and Paul, Nauvoo, livestock and grain farmer, former rural life director for the Diocese of Peoria, recently completed preparation for the ministry of spiritual direction.

Mike Haag, St. John’s, Cullom, operates large hog farm and raises corn and soybeans with parents and brother-in-law. Member of Illinois Pork Producers Association Board.

Mike Follmer, Graymont, a member of St. Mary’s, Pontiac, has raised corn, soybeans, and hogs since 1978 and is vice president of the board of Graymont Coop. Has served on parish liturgy committee and is an usher.

Steve Hettinger, St. Mary’s of Pesotum, fourth generation of Hettinger farmers, produces corn and soybeans in Champaign area with brothers Ray and David. Taught high school CCD for 15 years and with wife Robin is involved in parish music ministry.

Father Luke Spannagel, episcopal vicar for rural life since 2010, parochial vicar at St. Patrick’s Church of Merna, Bloomington and St. Mary’s, Downs. Raised in rural Pesotum and assisted in family farm work.

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