One of the
more notable physical appointments of any church
in the Diocese of Richmond has to be the altar
in St. Anthony Church in Norton made from a huge
single block of anthracite coal.
It’s certainly appropriate for the small
church in far southwest Virginia where the
community and its surrounding Appalachian
mountain region were settled by coal miners.
The coal industry has continued to be a
central element of the local culture and economy
through succeeding generations to today.
St. Anthony’s sanctuary is a conscientious
representation of its community — both temporal
Other prominent features are the stained
glass windows depicting mining, medical,
communication and sewing industries as well as
symbols of education, home and family, the local
“trail of the lonesome pine,” religious practice
and Christ and the Eucharist.
But in the same way, on any given Sunday, the
living church of St. Anthony’s is reflected in
the faces of its members, a representation of a
faithful Catholic community that has endured in
these mountains for over 70 years.
The most significant feature of today’s St.
Anthony faith community is its diversity, said
Father Timothy Drake, pastor.
“You’ll see, whenever the people gather after
Mass, all these small groups — the Filipinos
over here, the African Americans there, the
whites, the Hispanics — but all together in the
room under one roof,” he explained.
“It’s a very gifted community,” added Father
Tim, pastor for the last eight years. “There are
people here from all over. They are highly
educated and sensitive to their diversity.”
With two hospitals in Norton, a large
percentage of the St. Anthony membership is
employed in the medical profession, particularly
among its sizable Filipino community.
Parishioner and physician Dr. Rodolfo
Cartegena estimated there are at least a dozen
medical doctors in the congregation of only 60
St. Anthony’s comes by its diversity
honestly. Catholic immigrant families of coal
miners first came to the Norton area in the
mid-19th century. They were Hungarian, Slovak,
German, Lebanese, Polish and Irish. Later they were joined by miners from Italy
and Syria, as well.
The parish history notes that in 1896 the
Stonega Coal and Coke Company built “a handsome
edifice” for its Catholic employees there, and
priests of the Wheeling, West Virginia, diocese
came to serve them.
The original St. Anthony’s Church was
designed and built in 1936 by a priest, Father
Peter Aarts, who was also an architect and owned
his own construction company. The Glenmary
priests served the parish beginning in 1946.
Parishioner Bob Isaac, 79, who grew up in the
neighboring town of Appalachia and owned a
clothing store in Norton, recalled when the coal
communities were bursting with people and
bustling with commerce.
He later saw the population wane and economy
falter in the 1950s and ‘60s with mines
automating and growing competition from the oil
In 1979 when a new church was built on St.
Anthony’s same site, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan
named Father Richard Dollard as the first
diocesan priest to be pastor of St. Anthony’s
when the Glenmary's left.
parishioners, from left, are Beth Palabrica,
Formation coordinator, Tita Cartagena, Thelma
Adongay, Aja Cartagena, Elsa Miranda, Hortense
Mooney, Bob Isaac, Shirley Mooney and Rudy
With wide ranging backgrounds, the people of
St. Anthony’s prize their Catholic faith and are
actively engaged in sharing it with each other.
They are particularly involved in liturgical and
Christian formation ministry.
Elsa Miranda, a member of St. Anthony’s for
35 years, noted that the church continues to
hold First Friday devotions, and a long-running
rosary prayer group of some 27 participants
still gathers in individual homes for faith
St. Anthony’s has a thriving program of
catechesis with about 25 children enrolled. Beth
Palabrica, who coordinates parish Christian
formation, said the 5-6 catechists who lead
Sunday morning classes all participate in the
diocesan Pathways certification process.
Father Drake said a big challenge for the
parish is serving its growing Hispanic
Overcoming language barriers will be
necessary to increase catechesis and encourage
participation beyond sacramental preparation.
Parishioners also would like to develop a
campus ministry at the neighboring University of
Virginia at Wise but limited resources currently
don’t allow for it.
Beverly Willis, who leads the Rite of
Christian Initiation of Adults, mentioned that
the parish usually has at least one person
preparing to enter the Church.
There’s no “systematic” approach to adult
formation, Father Tim said, but occasional
speakers and presentations attract good
“The people want to know more about their
faith and about the Bible,” he noted.
They want to learn more to pass their faith
on to their children as well as strengthen their
own spirituality, the pastor explained.
Enjoying donuts after
Mass are, back row from left, Irv Bass, J. T.
Caruso, Jack Nauss and brother David holding his
younger brother Daniel. In the front, from left,
are other Nauss children, Peter, Tom and Angela.
Dr. Dave Nauss and his three oldest boys mow the
grass and maintain the grounds at St. Anthony.
St. Anthony parishioners say the parish is
very much accepted in the Norton community.
“They say ‘my faith is challenged here.’”
Father Drake said. “They are on the defensive
about the Catholic faith.”
He suggested that a lingering regional
undercurrent of mistrust regarding Catholicism
inhibits people from openly sharing their faith
outside the church.
As in other parts of the state, Catholics are
in a distinct minority in the Norton area. Small
evangelical churches proliferate, seemingly
peeking through the trees at every turn of the
winding Appalachian roads, and religious people
who have lived there a long time will tell you
that a non-institutional spirituality runs deep
throughout the region.
But Father Drake said his parishioners have
told him they face “a lot of no-faith up here.”
The Glenmary priests, who maintained a strong
presence in the region for some 50 years
beginning in the 1940s, were more intent on
informing people about Catholic belief and
social teaching, he said.
“We are pretty timid about it,” Father Tim
Father Tim shares the people’s sense of
challenge and caution regarding evangelization.
In his personal call to bring the Gospel to the
region he takes a gentle approach.
“I try to get to know people. A personal
relationship goes a long way,” he noted.
A native of Cleveland, Father Drake was
ordained of the Diocese of Richmond in 1971.
Prior to coming to Norton he was pastor for
several years of St. Matthew Parish in Virginia
He admitted that his transition from urban to
rural life took a little time. But he adjusted
and enjoys serving in the rural mountain
When Father Drake first came to Norton he was
assigned to both St. Anthony’s and St. Mary’s in
Four years ago his pastorate expanded to
include Sacred Heart of Big Stone Gap and Holy
Spirit of Jonesville.
“Then when I became pastor of St. Joseph’s in
Clintwood, it became clustered with the others,”
Father Tim spent five years in the
Philippines with the Maryknoll community.
His ministry also includes visiting Norton
hospitals and the area’s super-max state
prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge.
He shares visiting the local federal prison
with neighboring priest Father Michael Herbert.
The necessary travel among the churches on
weekends can be a test in itself, and an added
challenge came when the diocese recently
designated the grouping as a cluster.
Nevertheless, Father Tim said he believes the
parishes will grow into their shared ministry,
especially with the help of the diocesan “We
Walk By Faith” planning process.
“It’s been great so far,” he said, “and it’s
really going to help us look at each of the
parishes and see who does what best so we can
share those various ministries with each other.”