|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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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.
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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|Christmastide at Silver Dollar City|
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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.
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.'
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