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Ecumenical evangelization

Brother Craig Digmann is a modern-day circuit-rider for the Catholic Church

By Dan McWilliams
Photos by Stephanie Richer and Dan McWilliams

In Hancock County, everybody knows Brother Craig Digmann.

Well, it sure seems that way.

Now in his fourth year of his self-described Catholic Presence Ministry in the East Tennessee county on the Virginia border, the Glenmary Home Missioners brother has immersed himself into the life of an area that is only 0.2 percent Catholic.

Brother Craig has attended all 64 mostly Baptist churches in Hancock County, where he has sung or even preached, and he has gone to Bible studies, high school basketball games, and thrift stores. On top of that, he ministers at the county jail.

Hancock County, East Tennessee’s poorest by far, is also home to the Diocese of Knoxville’s smallest parish: tiny St. James the Apostle, which draws about seven people to Sunday Mass in its roughly 300-square-foot building, a former package store.

Greeting the students

A typical day for Brother Craig begins with a visit to Hancock County High School and Middle School in Sneedville, where he serves as a greeter, giving each student a positive start to his or her day.

“At the door, we just give a smile to the kids, a greeting, a good morning, and just give them some encouragement on their day,” Brother Craig said. “Some of the kids you can just see have a rough background, so there’s maybe a little special outreach to them.”

Mitch Cantwell, principal of Hancock County High School, enjoys his friendship with Brother Craig.

“We talk during the mornings when he comes in,” Mr. Cantwell said. “He’s very friendly, wants to know how the weekend was, and how everything’s going. He’s talked about families, and also talks about the kids here, always willing to do what he can. He’s up here supporting them through the sports. Greets them at the door each morning, and the kids, they know him by name. He’s in the community quite often. He’s been to our church quite often, talked to our pastors quite a bit, joins us when we’ve had events.”

Brother Craig formerly implemented his greeter program for five years at Union County High School in Maynardville, where the Glenmarys have started the new St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish.

“But it’s a very loving community, too. We have our problems, but there are many really, really good people, so a lot of this is just encouraging goodness, being an example of living a good life,” he said. “It’s all about example. Most of the kids know — the teachers sure know — that I don’t have to be here. I’m a volunteer, giving of oneself without expecting anything in return.”

In Union County as a greeter, Brother Craig encountered one student who didn’t say hello to him for four years — until he was almost out of school.

“At the end of that time, just before he graduated, he opened up,” Brother Craig said.

At the old country store

Brother Craig with Jean Martin at the country store.

Leaving the high school and Sneedville proper, a trip over a large ridge with switchback curves leads down into a deep green valley and to the doorstep of Martin’s Grocery.

Owner Jean Martin has operated the store for the Mulberry Gap community since 1975.

“Brother Craig came by one day and visited me. We’ve been talking ever since. It’s been probably two or three years,” she said.

Is Brother Craig a good fellow?

“He sure is” comes the quick reply.

Mrs. Martin and Brother Craig “just talk about different things” on his visits.

“He talks about his (Catholic) Church and invites people to come to his church,” she said. “I’ve not been by his church (St. James the Apostle), but I need to. I’m going to go by sometime.”

Mrs. Martin said Brother Craig is “real gentle” when it comes to discussing his faith. He never imposes it on her.

Martin’s Grocery has a 1908-model scale, as well as an old-fashioned wood stove that Mrs. Martin uses during the colder months.

“If it’s real cold, I’ll throw a chunk of coal in it,” Mrs. Martin said.

‘Oh, Lord, send us someone new today’

Back in Sneedville, Brother Craig takes a trip up a long, tree-lined driveway to visit Barbara Marecic, a parishioner of St. James since its founding in 1981.

She spoke of how she came to know Brother Craig.

“He just came to town and introduced himself, and he’s been working hard for us ever since,” she said.

What does Brother Craig do?

“Anything that needs to be done,” Mrs. Marecic said. “It would be hard for us to do without Brother Craig. He fits in everywhere. Wherever we need him, he’s right there.

“He’s visited every Protestant church in Hancock County. Most of the people really enjoy meeting him and talking to him. He tries to explain things to them that they don’t understand. He’s really good at it.”

Barbara Marecic

Mrs. Marecic remembers the days before St. James the Apostle was founded.

“Several priests would visit the county and have Mass in people’s basements or wherever they could, so there were a few Catholics around, and we finally got that little building, and that’s been our church,” said Mrs. Marecic, a Catholic convert. “It’s a humble little building, but I’m sure proud of it.”

She said it’s “sometimes hard” being Catholic in a virtually non-Catholic county.

“Sometimes they’re hard-headed. They won’t listen, but maybe they look at me the same way. So I try to be patient with them if they don’t understand, because a lot of these people around here have never been anywhere to any other church. I’d been to many, many Catholic churches when I was still a Protestant, so I knew and understood a little bit about both of them. If they want to argue, I just walk away or say, ‘Well, I’m sorry.’ I don’t want to fight with them. I always say, ‘Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they’re saying.’”

Mrs. Marecic has a prayer she says for St. James Parish:

“Oh, Lord, send us someone new today.”

A clothing center and a thrift store

Other stops on Brother Craig’s rounds are the Over Home Clothing Center, a mission of the Methodist Church, and the Shepherd’s Corner thrift store, operated by One Accord Ministry.

Angie Rasnic of the Over Home Clothing Center has known Brother Craig more than two years.

“He’s a lot of fun,” she said. “He’s good. He brings us stuff to use for the clothing center.”

The public comes once a month to Over Home, while children visit quarterly to receive clothing. In the last quarterly stop by children in the needy community, more than 500 kids were served.

Co-worker Sally Morris described Brother Craig as “a very good man.”

“He’s shared in our Bible studies at our church, the Methodist church. He’s good in the fact that he’s gone around the community to a lot of agencies and pitches in where he can and how he can.”

Sue Olson of the Shepherd’s Corner thrift store can “tell you one thing about Craig: he’s into a lot of different things around here.

“He knows people from all the different organizations. He’s the type of person we feel we can go to and talk to. A lot of times he has something he can help us with. He’s a nice asset to us.”

The first person Brother Craig met in Hancock County

Brother Craig with Connie South of the Hancock County Historical Society.

When Brother Craig first alighted in Sneedville, he came to Connie South of the Hancock County Historical Society. One thing led to another, and Brother Craig wound up with living quarters in a small house on Main Street. “He came in one day when my cousin and I were here together,” Ms. South said. “He was looking for a place to rent. She happened to be here, and we just kind of knew some people in the area, and it happened to be the right person to contact, and he ended up with his place to live.

“He’s been a pleasure. I always enjoy talking with him. He comes in quite often. We chat about different things going on in the county. We kind of communicate back and forth. He’s a contact for me.”

She said Brother Craig has shared his faith with her but is not intrusive about it.

“Not in any way,” she said. “Craig is a wonderful man, a delight to be around, and certainly an asset to our community.”

Brother Craig returned the favor.

“Miss Connie has been a tremendous blessing to me,” he said. “To make me feel welcome before I even got here, and to also share so much about the county and how I might be able to fit in and ways I might be able to work in this county and volunteer and different things. I think she’s probably about the sweetest lady in the county. I just appreciate Connie and her family and all.”

A stop at home

After a lunch of old-fashioned country cooking at Michael’s Family Diner that included fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, fried okra, and biscuits, Brother Craig makes a stop by his home, where he shares a little more about his ministry.

“With Catholic Presence Ministry here, I try to be as present as I can throughout the entire county,” he said. “We’re only two-tenths of 1 percent Catholic, so everything I do I feel is ecumenical because there are hardly any Catholics here. So working with my brothers and sisters and just being present with them, everything’s ecumenical. From the ecumenical sharing and trust, and getting to know people and multiplicity of presence all over the place, the evangelization naturally comes forth from those experiences.

“And that’s why I use the term ‘ecumenical evangelization.’ I know that’s a simple term, but you don’t hear people use it. … That’s what I do.”

Brother Craig says he is a lone voice in Hancock County.

“For the Catholic voice, I kind of am,” he said. “Of course, I came here intentionally to reach out to my non-Catholic brothers and sisters, and we’ve had Catholics who have been here for some time, some even raised here. But it can be kind of difficult for our Catholics to reach out and to share our Catholic faith with others. We’re not always real well-accepted, so I thank God for the gifts He’s given me of patience and some other things to be able to walk with my non-Catholic brothers and sisters to where we can eventually share deeper things in our faith.”

Brother Craig Digmann points out items on his casket-turned-bookcase. The handles of the casket are visible at left, and the lid is at right.

Brother Craig said he has visited the 64 churches in Hancock County multiple times.

“It’s about 95 percent Baptist here, very few Methodist, and, of course a few Catholic, and just a few Pentecostals, too,” he said.

One church in the county has had snake-handling during its services, a religious rite of some mostly rural Protestant churches.

“I’ve not been there when they’ve had the snakes. But they’re real good people there,” Brother Craig said. “There have been three people from there who have been to our Mass — they witnessed our Mass for the first time on a Sunday. When it came time where we all got up to go to Communion, they actually walked out the door, but I think they thought the service was over when they saw us get up to do that.”

Brother Craig’s home has one unusual feature: a casket converted into a bookcase.

“[Glenmary] Brother Joe Steen made my casket, and he’s made caskets for other Glenmarians. It’s just part of our simplicity and practicality to not spend too much, to keep things simple,” Brother Craig said. “The cost of it was a little under $200. I really appreciate that from Brother Joe. The screws are in a little bag attached on the inside to where it’s all ready to throw me in the box and put me underground.”

‘That’s just what I do here’

Brother Craig travels rough country on lonely roads in Hancock County, but that is not unusual for a Glenmarian.

“In our Glenmary charism, we’re very well-known for going to the lost and forgotten areas or the more isolated areas, not so easy to get to, to reach those people who maybe others won’t go to,” he said. “Everybody’s somebody. All of us were created in the image and likeness of God, and so we reach out to everyone. That’s just what I do here.”

Brother Craig sometimes calls his Catholic Presence Ministry by the term “show-up ministry.”

Father Bart Okere celebrates Mass with Brother Craig, Barbara Marecic, and Forrest Wylie.

“Basically, I show up all over this county, in far and wide places, back roads of the back roads, and then to just be present with God’s people, whatever’s going on, listen to their struggles and whatnot, and just sit back, not be talking all the time, but just sit back and let the people share, and try not to get in the way of the Holy Spirit,” he said.

The Holy Spirit is always present in a county, even before the Glenmarians arrive.

“The Spirit has always been here,” Brother Craig said. “When us Glenmarians go to a new county, we always remind each other, ‘Now, remember guys, there’s not a Catholic church here, there’s not many Catholics, but the Spirit is already present here.’”

Brother Craig says he receives “not a whole lot of negative reaction” to his ministry.

“There are times in the Baptist churches that I’ll hear anti-Catholicism preached during the service. I can’t respond right then and there, but after the service oftentimes I’ll have a chance to talk to the pastor or other parishioners.

“Generally speaking on that topic, people have been fantastic as far as accepting myself as a Catholic, and I think to most of the other Catholics here they’ve been pretty welcoming.”

Brother Craig has a final goal for his ministry.

“Ultimately, the greatest hope would be that the many people I visit with would become Catholics. The Spirit can do anything,” he said. “But when you have a county where there’s not been religious serving here and present among the native people here, the misconceptions of Catholicism run so deep.

“Just to use, for example, the topic of Mary: ‘You Catholics worship Mary.’ And I say, ‘No, we don’t,’ and I explain in detail why we don’t, how practically we honor her like Jesus did, and I use many examples. And then we’ll go on to another topic, and they’ll come back and say, ‘But you worship Mary.’ It is so deeply ingrained. It takes so much time and effort to break those misunderstandings.”

A little girl at Chinquapin Grove Baptist Church appreciated Brother Craig’s visit there once.

“I sing songs at most of the churches I go to. One time I went up and sang two songs. Later, we went up together around the altar and prayed, and a little 6-year-old girl handed me a piece of paper where she did a drawing of me with pencil while I was singing.”

Non-Catholics’ reaction to Mass at St. James revolves around one aspect, Brother Craig said.

“I think the biggest thing people are surprised at is how much Scripture we have in our liturgy, because many of the Baptist churches don’t. They’ll have the Bible open at the pulpit, and there’s a good number of churches where they don’t even read from the Bible during the service. Many do, more than half, but there’s quite a few that don’t.”

‘The main similarity’

Brother Craig’s visits continue after lunch, and he stops in to see Judy Greene, an ardent Baptist.

“I first met Brother Craig at his house. As he comes in and out, I’ll see him, and we’ll walk and talk. I see him at ballgames, volleyball and basketball.”

The two talk about their faith traditions.

“We talk about the similarities, more than anything else. The main similarity is you have to believe in Jesus Christ. That’s all it takes,” she said.

‘He’s definitely in the right place’

At 2 p.m., the day happening to be a third Thursday, St. James the Apostle holds an adoration service, which includes a rosary, followed by Mass. Only four attend as the pastor, Father Bart Okere, presides.

Among those present is Forrest Wylie, a parishioner who first came into the Church at Pope St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge.

He says Brother Craig is “great.”

“I guess I’m rather a big fan of Glenmary in general and him especially,”

Mr. Wylie said. Brother Craig is serving just where he needs to be, Mr. Wylie said.

“I think if Glenmary’s mission is to minister where Catholicism isn’t and among the poorest of the poor, then he’s definitely in the right place,” he said. “I can’t right off hand think of any county that needs the help more. I started off in the mission in Rutledge. Rutledge is the big city compared to here, and easy street for Catholicism compared to this. If you want mission, this is the place to be, and I think he’s a very good one.” Father Okere, who also is pastor of St. Henry Parish in neighboring Hawkins County, arrived in Hancock County at the same time as Brother Craig, in 2016.

When St. James Parish was established, it was a mission of St. Henry Parish, and the two faith communities remain linked by their shared pastor, who appreciates what Brother Craig is accomplishing.

“He’s in outreach ministry,” Father Okere said. “He goes from church to church and school to school. He’ll be helping me, and when I’m not here, he’ll do a Communion service for the community here. We’ve been collaboratively working together with Brother Craig. Everybody loves what he’s doing.”

Comments 1

  1. I enjoyed reading Brother Craig’s mission work. He must be some one very special…to be able to be present to these people in a caring way is really “preaching” the gospel. God bless you and may His Spirit continue to guide you in such a worth while ministry.. Best regards.,Mike

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