Daniel Markham has traveled the United States to chronicle unique ministries for ‘52 Masses’
By Gabrielle Nolan
Out of all the Catholic churches in the state of Tennessee, writer Daniel Markham chose to visit St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge.
One element in particular attracted him to the Diocese of Knoxville: the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.
In his research for Tennessee, Mr. Markham came across the mobile clinic and “knew that was something that would make a good subject” for his upcoming book, 52 Masses.
For the past year, Mr. Markham has been traveling around the country to attend Mass in every state, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
“The idea is to write about the many different ways Catholics are experiencing and living out the faith in the United States,” he said.
Mr. Markham looked at the various Catholic churches on the clinic’s rotation and “saw they would be in Rutledge on the second Thursday, which fit nicely into my schedule.”
The St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic continues the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy by providing health care to the poor and rural areas of East Tennessee, where clients are often medically underserved as well as underinsured or uninsured.
Mr. Markham said he “was overjoyed to see how neatly the work of the Glenmary Missionaries parallels the work being done by the volunteers from the clinic.”
The Glenmary Home Missioners started St. John Paul II in Grainger County in 2011.
Mr. Markham met with the staff and volunteers of the clinic on May 12.
“The efforts of the volunteers were inspiring,” he said. “They were, across the board, committed to serving the clients from the Rutledge community not just with the utmost professionalism, but while filled with a Catholic spirit that never wavered. It was a privilege to experience their work.”
Mr. Markham conducted interviews for his book with medical director Sister Mary Lisa Renfer, RSM, nurse manager Beth Ann Arrigo, and executive director Martin Vargas.
“It’s so great that God guided him to us and that we’re able to share our ministry with him,” Mr. Vargas said. “What I loved about when he came and saw us is he was moved by the spirit of how we provide the healing ministry of Jesus Christ to those in need in East Tennessee.”
Mr. Vargas also noted the uniqueness of the clinic site in Rutledge.
“We minister to a lot of the Hispanic families that work in the fields in the area,” he said. “I say families because the young kid will get seen, the mom will be seen or the dad, and the grandma, grandpa. … It’s total family medicine, and it was unique that he got to see that aspect of our clinic.”
The following Saturday, May 14, Mr. Markham returned to St. John Paul II for the vigil Mass, celebrated by pastor Father Neil Pezzulo, a Glenmary Home Missioner.
“To come back to enjoy Mass with the parishioners in the beautiful worship space was also a treat,” Mr. Markham said, noting that the community also looked forward to the church’s dedication by Bishop Richard F. Stika on May 29.
“I pray the church will continue to grow and the faith will flourish in Grainger County,” Mr. Markham continued. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time in East Tennessee. It’s always a blessing when I can see firsthand the fruits of the story I’m covering.”
The idea for Mr. Markham’s book, which is over four years in the making, first came to mind in 2016 on an ordinary day.
“I just dropped off my youngest son at soccer practice when he was a freshman in high school, and it just kind of came to me,” Mr. Markham recounted. “The whole idea of traveling and writing…that was very sudden.”
In the fall of 2018, Mr. Markham began writing to the archbishops and bishops across the country to let them in on his plans after receiving a blessing from his own pastor and bishop in Indiana.
“When I started getting phone calls is when I realized OK, this isn’t something that I can do, this is something that I’m supposed to be doing,” he said.
Mr. Markham’s first road trip kicked off in June 2021, when he visited St. Patrick in Nashua, N.H. Since then, he has visited more than 40 parishes.
One memorable experience occurred in Warsaw, N.D., home of St. Gianna’s Maternity Home. Mr. Markham met young women experiencing crisis pregnancies who can raise their children until the age of 2 in a faith-filled, safe, and loving home.
“That was an incredible experience; I knew it was going to be. I spent the whole weekend there,” he said.
Mr. Markham didn’t have any expectations when he traveled to a tri-parish area of Idaho County, Idaho, and “was surprised.”
“It is overwhelmingly Catholic,” he said, noting that the three parishes serve about 900 individuals.
Nearby, there is also St. Gertrude’s Monastery, which houses Benedictine religious sisters.
“It was just this so unexpected Catholic oasis in Idaho, and the people were wonderful,” he continued. “I didn’t want to leave.”
A professional writer for 30 years, Mr. Markham takes advantage of writing his book while completing duties for his day job.
“I work for a trade magazine, so I write about metal distribution,” he explained. “I write about steel and aluminum; that’s my field. I’m still doing that while I’m on the road, where fortunately my job is mostly just staying at home and making phone calls.”
When traveling for a work conference or meeting with an advertiser, he’ll attend Mass at the specific parish he’s chosen for that state.
“I’ve tried to do that as much as possible, combine work-related travel with my trips,” he said. “It would have been really difficult with a different kind of job to do this, and it also would have been really difficult if I wasn’t located in the Midwest, where it’s a decent distance to a lot of places.”
A supportive family
When Mr. Markham first shared his idea with family and friends, the responses were a mixed bag.
“I think there was both, ‘there’s no way you can do that, there’s no way you can pull that off,’ as well as ‘that’s a really great idea,’” Mr. Markham said. “I think when I would talk to people and when they understood what I was trying to do, then they would get excited and then they would provide ideas, which was great.”
While on the road, Mr. Markham is away from his wife, Kemberly. Together, they have three adult children who live across the country.
After living in Indiana for 30 years, the couple moved to Illinois in 2020 and currently attend St. Gerald Parish in Oak Lawn.
“My wife has been incredibly supportive,” he said. “I’m gone most every weekend. … It’s been incredible on her part that she was perfectly fine with me going.”
“Now the time that I left with her keys in my pocket, [she was] not as happy about that,” Mr. Markham continued. “I mailed them as soon as I got to Iowa City, eight days later I got home… It was three days after I got home, the keys got home.”
Mr. Markham has had a few opportunities to see his children during his travels, too.
“My son has been with me a couple times; he was in Utah and Oregon, and then my daughter will be with me in Maine when I go to visit her in Vermont,” Mr. Markham said.
The whole family traveled to New Orleans for Christmas last year, where they attended a Jazz Mass in the French Quarter.
Later this summer, the family will meet up again, but this time in one of the three locations that Mr. Markham must fly to.
“My family’s going to meet me in Hawaii because it’s hard to justify going to Hawaii just to go to Mass,” he quipped.
Mr. Markham noted that they will attend a Hawaiian Mass in Honolulu, and he will write about a growing young adult ministry that encompasses multiple parishes on the island.
His last Mass of the yearlong journey will be at the parish where “the whole thing started,” Nativity of Our Savior in Portage, Ind.
“The idea was I would come home, and then the last chapter (of the book) is more reflective…a reflection of the trip and its effect on me.”
Mr. Markham, a lifelong practicing Catholic, is involved in his parish as a eucharistic minister and as a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Knights of Columbus.
He describes himself as “truly a lay Catholic” whose faith is “very much growing.”
“My involvement in St. Vincent de Paul has probably been the biggest transformation in my faith life, I would say. … Praying with the people that we work with,” Mr. Markham said.
As one might imagine, journeying around the country specifically to attend Masses has only fueled Mr. Markham’s faith life.
“I feel different. I feel closer to Christ,” he shared. “I feel just more at peace. I feel more excited about Mass, about everything.”
“This has accelerated my faith, the growth in my faith life, tremendously,” he continued. “I’ve been so blessed to not just experience all these wonderful things. … I’ve gotten this well-rounded education in so many facets, whether it’s about art or music or just the history of the faith and just perspectives that I had never considered.”
Sometimes Mr. Markham will attend multiple Masses in one weekend, allowing him to hear God’s Word on a deeper level.
“It was the very first weekend and I went to like three Masses,” he explained. “It was three different priests delivering the homily, all of which were on the same subject on the Gospel reading, but all of which came from a very different perspective and view of taking something different out of it.”
Mr. Markham noted how most Catholics hear the same priest give the homily every weekend and usually only hear the readings one time.
“So, to get these three vastly different perspectives, all of which were grounded in Catholic teaching, I never really contemplated the depth of and the breadth of what all is in each reading,” he said.
“The other thing is, it seemed throughout how often that the Gospel reading or the homily was directed at me,” he continued. “After a while you realize, no, I was just more open to that message. … This message really relates to me in a way that maybe I didn’t really embrace before. … And I don’t think the message is changing; I’ve changed, that I’ve been more open to the Word.”
Mr. Markham admits that in the beginning, he thought this adventure came from him.
“When I was naïve, I thought it was my idea,” he said. “And then as time went on, initially when I first started talking to people, I realized that this is what I’ve been asked to do, that I feel like this is what I’ve been called to do. And I’ve never had that feeling before, but it became very clear to me, this is what is asked of me.”
“I realized that I’m kind of just being directed, that the Holy Spirit is pointing me—you need to go here and talk to this person, or you need to go to this parish,” he continued. “I just feel like I was blessed with this idea. I don’t know why I was chosen. I’m very grateful that I was because it’s been an experience. I mean, I knew it was going to be great, and it’s vastly exceeded everything I expected.”
The book will be published by Peregrino Press, a media publishing company based in Wisconsin.
Each chapter of the book will reflect Mr. Markham’s experiences of his visits, resulting in 52 individual anecdotes, rather than one long narrative.
While an exact date is unknown, Mr. Markham hopes the book will be published by the end of this year.
“The thing that’s great is, if someone wanted to do it, do the same thing I did, [they] could just go to 52 different Catholic churches and have just as many amazing stories because every parish has a story,” Mr. Markham said. “It’s everywhere in our Church. I didn’t pick the only 52 churches or stories that are inspiring.”
To learn more about Mr. Markham’s journey and book, visit 52masses.com.