Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The Ozarks: A Good Place for Catholics

Hawksbill Crag, Ozark Mountains
AR Nature Gal, Flickr

I know there are many Catholics out there thinking of "getting away from it all." Maybe you live in a big city somewhere. Maybe you're tired of the traffic, the smog, the crime, the noise and the general rat race. Maybe you've been thinking about getting away, but you just can't imagine any place different. Maybe the Catholic Church isn't so healthy where you live. Maybe you're dealing with some liberal priests, innovative liturgy, and catechises that just doesn't cut the mustard. Maybe you're thinking about getting out, but you just don't know where to go.

I know what it feels like, because 25 years ago, that was me.

I came to the Ozarks as a naive Californian, having no idea what I was getting into. In fact, I originally had no intention of staying. My plan was to just help my parents move, and then look around for a job. If I couldn't find one, I had a one-way airline ticket back to California already paid for. Surprisingly, I found work, then I brought my wife out. Then we settled down. The first couple years weren't an easy adjustment. We both had been born and raised in Southern California. The slower pace of life here originally irritated us, and we initially made the mistake of moving to a small town with a population of under 3,000 people. We never fit in there, and that's okay, because we eventually moved closer to Springfield, Missouri, and that's when everything started to take a turn for the better.

We were both Protestants at that time, but the Catholic Church in Springfield was growing and vibrant. It was enough to attract us and we converted. It was then I learned what a great place the Ozarks are for Catholics.

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I want to call your attention to Greene County in particular. It's in the lower left corner of the state. The largest city is Springfield, with a population of only 164,000. This is really the perfect size insofar as a city goes. It's large enough to have all the major medical and entertainment facilities a family might need, but small enough to minimise the problems often associated with cities in general. In addition, Springfield is within a 3 hour drive to Kansas City, and Tulsa. It's also only a 3 1/2 hour drive to Saint Louis. So if you need a really big city for something, you have three to choose from, and they're not that far away. The two most favourable counties to live in this area are Greene County and Christian County. In both of these places, you'll find plenty of smaller cities that function much like suburbs of Springfield, except they are usually separated by miles of wooded areas and farmland.

Springfield, and the surrounding cities and towns, are situated at the top of the Ozark Plateau, which is an outcropping of small limestone mountains which is partially disconnected from the Appalachian Mountain chain. Think of the Ozarks as an "island" of Appalachian Mountains disconnected from the rest. The description is accurate both geographically and culturally. Because of the disconnect from the rest, the Ozarks are considered their own unique mountains. The area around Springfield is pretty flat, but when driving just to the south and east one is quickly reminded that it sits on top of mountains.

Springfield, Missouri
It is in Springfield, however, where most of the Catholic churches are, and the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the Ozarks live in Greene and Christian counties, Missouri. Now the Catholic population of this region of the country is extremely sparse. In fact, the Catholic population of Springfield is currently at only 3.65%, compared to the national average of 19.69%. The Catholic population outside of Springfield is considerably less than that. That's because the Ozark Mountains rest squarely within the Bible Belt of the United States, which is primarily Baptist, Pentecostal and Methodist. However, it is that small number percentage that gives Catholics their strength in this area. For the most part, Catholics are much more educated about their faith, namely because they have to be. They're surrounded by people who don't understand Catholicism, might have lots of questions, and usually have a whole lot of misconceptions. Catholics need to deal with this regularly, and it is in dealing with that, they get their sharpness. This is why Catholic churches in the Bible Belt are growing while Catholic churches everywhere else in the United States are shrinking. All over America, particularly in the traditionally Catholic northern regions of the U.S., parishes are merging, and old chapels are being sold off. Here in the Bible Belt, however, the exact opposite seems to be the case. In fact, in Springfield, Missouri, not a single Catholic parish has ever been closed, and more are being added in surrounding cities regularly. Just in the last couple decades, brand new parishes have been erected in the "suburban" cities of Ozark, Nixa and Republic.

If you're a Catholic who's not used to the whole Bible Belt thing, there really is no need to worry. Most of the non-Catholics in these areas are harmless. They usually don't bother Catholics. They leave our churches unmolested, and generally find us more of a curiosity than anything else. The Ozarks has a high population of Amish as well, and so most of the local Baptist, Pentecostals and Methodists (who make up the majority of Christians in this area), see Catholics like Amish, in that we're a kind of "cultural enrichment" to the area. Most of the time we are respected, and Catholics have achieved many prominent positions here in business, medicine, law, public service, and the arts. Yes, of course, ignorance does exist. And every once in a while you'll run across some zealous Fundamentalist who will tell you you're going to hell, and you better stop worshipping Mary. But to be quite honest with you; I've met more people like that in Southern California than I ever have in the Ozarks. I'm not sure why that is, but I'm being very honest with you when I say that. For more information on my experience as a Catholic in the Ozarks, I recommend you read my essay: Living as a Catholic in the Bible Belt.

The Interior of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Springfield
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Now there has been an interesting trend developing among Catholics in the Ozarks. A good number of younger Catholics have been moving in a more traditional direction. By that I mean there has been a renewed interest in the Traditional Latin Mass, and the Traditional English Mass (Anglican Form). Both, of course, are approved by Rome, and both have an "old school" high-church kind of feel to them. Currently, the diocesan Latin mass is celebrated at St. Joseph the Worker in Ozark, just south of Springfield. Likewise, there is an SSPX chapel on the north side of Springfield. (I mention that because it is currently being reported that full reconciliation of the SSPX with Rome is now imminent.) Finally, to the southwest of Springfield, there is an Ordinariate parish recently formed in Republic, called Saint George, which offers an "old school" high-church mass in traditional English. It is fully Catholic and approved by Rome. Any Roman Catholic may become a member and fully participate in parish life there. That's a whole lot of traditional Catholicism for such a small area with such a tiny percent of the population being Catholic. In Southern California, for example, there might be one traditional parish for an enormous number of Catholics. Yet in Southwest Missouri, particularly the greater Springfield area, we have THREE traditional parish options for a tiny number of Catholics (less than 4% of the total population). Outside the immediate area, there is also a traditional Catholic retreat. Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey is a traditional (all Latin) Roman Catholic monastery open to visitors. It is about 3 hours southwest of Springfield, in eastern Oklahoma near the Cherokee Nation. Those seeking an "old school" traditional Catholic getaway, have it available to them relatively nearby.

Christmastide at Silver Dollar City
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The Bible Belt culture of the area has a whole lot of perks for Catholics too. For example; Baptists and Pentecostals are fearless when it comes to defending traditional Christian values in our increasingly Secular culture. The churches of Springfield successfully put down a so-called "anti-discrimination" ordinance in Springfield that would have allowed men into women's bathrooms and lawsuits against churches that refused to hire "out and proud" homosexuals. The Christian character of Springfield is obvious with its numerous churches, and religious businesses. Any trip to Branson, Missouri, (40 miles south of Springfield) will reveal a Christian culture so thick that Bible verses can be seen on billboards, entertainment shows end with a gospel theme, amusement parks unashamedly announce the gospel at Christmas and Easter over loudspeakers, with Scripture verses and nativity scenes everywhere, as well as religious colleges that have a strong presence all over the place. This kind of an environment, so I have found, does not in any way threaten Catholics or their sensibilities, but rather insulates them and protects them, from the encroaching advance of militant Secularism in all places of the Western world. Catholics can find ready allies among these Bible Belt Christians, and we have many times, in our fight against the march of militant Secularism and moral relativism.

Any Catholic coming from the north will immediately find the Ozarks to be a much more tempered and mild environment compared to the harsh winters of greater North America. Those coming from the Southwest and Gulf Coast will of course have to make an adjustment. I grew up in Southern California and found myself completely ill prepared for the colder winter weather here. While the Ozarks are not nearly as harsh as areas north and west of us, they do have some cold winter days. My family ancestry is primarily Scandinavian, so I had to embrace that. I've since learned that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. I've bought some good winter clothes and find myself braving the elements like a champ now. It almost doesn't phase me anymore. The good news about the Ozarks is that snowfall is usually measured in inches not feet, so the roads are almost always manageable, and I've never needed to invest in chains or snow tires. I don't even own a truck! An economy car and minivan have been all we've ever needed here.

If Catholic schools are what you're looking for, Springfield has plenty of them, as well as a growing Catholic homeschooling community. There are a few Catholic schools in smaller towns throughout the Ozarks, but because of the overwhelming non-Catholic population they're spread out and few in number. Protestants have their own schools too, and I hear they are of good quality. My wife and I used a small Protestant academy for one year with our oldest child. The experience was overwhelmingly positive, and they made no attempt to convert us.

The richness of the Ozarks is found primarily in the geography and culture. The geography is one of heavily wooded small mountains with lakes, rivers and streams. The culture of the Ozarks is unmistakably Christian and very patriotic. Employment is plentiful, especially in and around the Springfield area. Housing costs are lower than the national average, and this is a very big plus if moving in from a more expensive urban area. My parents sold their 1,000 square foot, two-bedroom, bungalow in Southern California, and were able to buy a 3,000 square foot home on 5 acres of property just outside Springfield. Yes, that kind of a trade-up is very doable here. The house I currently live in is three times larger than anything I could have ever afforded in Southern California, and I can't beat the location. I'm situated right next to a forest on the side of a hill. Such property would be nearly impossible for me to obtain in California, and still be able to commute to work in reasonable time.

So if you're looking for a place to get away, and start over with a whole new lifestyle, you may want to give the Ozarks a look. Greene and Christian counties are a pretty good place for Catholics to settle in with a family. They're also good places for Catholics to retire as well. It's not perfect, and I'm not trying to give you a sales job here. Yes, we do have our problems in the Ozarks, but in comparison to what I dealt with in Southern California, well, there really is no comparison. My standard of living has improved, as well as my quality of life, and I would say that the Catholic presence was strong enough here to get me to convert. So overall, I think it's a winner.

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Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'

BOOKS BY THIS BLOGGER...
A Catholic Guide
to the Last Days
Catholicism
for Protestants
Regnum Dei Press

2 comments:

Arminius said...

Having lived in the Ozarks around Springfield/Branson from 1990-2002, I can concur with many of your thoughts. My parents retired there in 2014, and my brother and his family returned there in ~1995 and have remained there since. My time in the military took us away from there and while I have longed to return to live, family health issues have deigned to keep us in the US desert southwest.

The Lab Manager said...

Springfield is a nice little town. I worked there for a bit in 2002. Is the Mexican restaurant Carlos O'Reilly's still around? I even recall a handful of women once in a while with a beehive hair. Nice parks to.