Boat Mass attracts marine Catholics from near and far

Father Joe Campbell’s divine streak of boat Masses on Norris Lake without a rain-out is intact thanks to God and a little divine inspiration through prayer by Bishop Richard F. Stika.

For the past 12 years, Father Campbell, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in LaFollette and Christ the King Church in Tazewell, has been celebrating a boat Mass on the waters of Norris Lake. “Some years we do as many as four each year,” Father Campbell said.

On June 21, more than 150 people arrived on more than 30 boats and personal watercraft to a secluded cove to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, with Bishop Stika as the celebrant. Father Campbell concelebrated the Mass and Deacon Sean Smith assisted Bishop Stika and Father Campbell.

Father Campbell said the June 21 Mass was the largest gathering since the tradition began.

“About half of my parishioners live on the water, so it’s just a natural fit,” Father Campbell said.

Many of the boaters attending the Mass were vacationers. Before Mass began, Father Campbell called out state names and asked for a show of hands to see where the boaters were from, with Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois represented.

“For the Rite of Sprinkling, we just jump in the water,” Bishop Stika said jokingly.

Three houseboats formed an enclosure to which others tied up their boats. Bishop Stika distributed Communion to the boaters and was assisted by a eucharistic minister.

Manuela Ptacek, a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help and assistant to Father Campbell in coordinating the boat Mass, said it required work to make the unique Mass happen.

“The biggest challenge is trying to get all the boats lined up,” she said. She explained that the Mass is advertised at Flat Hollow Marina in Campbell County, where Father Campbell keeps his boat docked and where boaters watch for announcements. Some boaters call the parish to ask when the date of the Mass will be.

OLPH parishioners secure a cove on the lake before the Mass and anchor a houseboat there that serves as the central point for the Mass. A potluck dinner followed the Mass at the home of parishioner Rose Kern.

Father Campbell first held a boat Mass in Lenoir City at the request of a Catholic women’s group. When he first arrived in LaFollette, he realized it was an even larger boating community. Many participants are from out of town and have seasonal homes on Norris Lake.

“They love getting out on the lake,” Father Campbell said. “And if they can avoid coming into town and getting dressed up, they’re all for it.”

The June 21 boat Mass marked two milestones for Father Campbell. It was the 15th anniversary of his ordination as a priest and his achievement of 165 pounds of weight lost since January.

And his divine streak in the weather department still holds.

“We’ve never been rained out, although today came close,” Father Campbell said as he laughed, referring to a thunderstorm that had passed through the area an hour before the Mass.

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