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Building a Genuine Connection

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by Anne Jones

During a six-day service immersion retreat, 12 seniors from Archbishop McNicholas High School visited eastern Tennessee to serve the rural poor and build a community both among themselves and with the people in the Appalachian Mountains.

This marks the 41st year that McNicholas traveled to Appalachian areas in conjunction with Glenmary Home Missioners, a Catholic organization dedicated to serving the poor and establishing a Catholic presence in rural areas of the United States.

Retreat leader and McNicholas Director of Mission & Ministry, Jeff Hutchinson- Smyth, said, “It was so powerful to be back at Joppa Mountain and to introduce our young people to the amazing work of Glenmary. It is a joy and a privilege to help them to witness the face of our Church in a context that’s very different from what many McNick students experience daily, even though we’re only two states away.”

Managers live and work with volunteer groups at the Glenmary House on Joppa Mountain. During their week on “Toppa Joppa,” students worked hard, chopping and delivering firewood to neighbors in need; cleaning and landscaping at the two mission parishes in Grainger and Union counties; playing with children, painting, and power- washing at Kingswood Children’s Home; maintaining trails and prayer spaces at Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center; and completing multiple renovation and maintenance tasks for community members.

Senior Bella Mastruserio felt a unique joy and peace in actively serving the community, “Encouraging one another while working on the more difficult tasks, doing a small chore around the house when no one else is looking and getting to know the members of the community we had the opportunity to serve were just a few ways that I saw this group bonded together during this special time in our lives.”

“It was especially powerful for me to witness key moments during which the seniors present took a genuine ownership of their faith,” Hutchinson-Smyth said. “Being with those 12 seniors helped to renew my sense of hope for what is to come in our school and in our Church.”

First offered to McNicholas seniors in 1981, the experience was started by now-retired theology teacher Mr. John Norman. Kay Clear Jabin ‘82, mother of senior Maria Jabin, attended the first Appalachian Retreat to the Glenmary Farm in Vanceburg, KY.

Mrs. Jabin said, “I have very fond memories of my trip back in 1981…I think many of us were humbled by the resilience of the families we met and how content they were despite their poverty. It was also an opportunity to spend time with classmates that I didn’t know very well and to see a side to them that wasn’t always visible during school hours.”

Mastruserio left the mountain with a profound sense of calm and connection with her surroundings. “This time served as a great reminder that true fulfillment only comes with disconnection from the fast-paced environment of everyday life, and instead allowing yourself to reconnect with nature and build genuine human connection,” she said. “After being back home for a little over a week, I now see the moments in life where it’s important to slow down and find the space to feel deep gratitude for your surroundings.”

Hutchison-Smyth is grateful for the opportunity to lead students on such a powerful faith experience. “This retreat epitomizes the commitment to compassionate leadership that our students come to embrace over the course of their time at McNick. Spending a week with grounded, salt-of- the-earth people who wake up each day and put their faith and their love into action in humble, yet powerful, ways is inspiring to me.”

Mastruserio added, “I have felt the light of Christ in the love from my classmates who went with me on this retreat, who I know will continue to spread that love and joy that comes from serving one another with the rest of the McNick community.”

This article appeared in the January 2023 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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