Things to Consider

Sacred Space for Rural Communities

June 17, 2009


Bell TowerWhat happens when you are in a small parish in a small town with limited resources, both personnel and financial, and your church needs renovation?  Or you're looking to have beautiful seasonal environments and celebrate fully the sacraments and sacred rituals? While this is challenging, it is not impossible to achieve if there is desire, commitment and creativity.

For the past twelve years, I have focused my liturgical consultant ministry on assisting rural parishes who face these very challenges. I grew up in a small town in central Nebraska and know how the faith of my family, neighbors, and friends in our parish helped to form and nourish my spiritual life and foster my vocation as a Benedictine Sister. I still feel a close relationship to the parish even though I have been away for over 40 years. A rural community is unique in that people share so many aspects of their everyday lives, including their faith and often over many generations. The experience of community in a wider sense naturally flows into a faith community.

In a rural culture, rootedness in the land and a love and respect of the land run deep. Farms are passed down from one generation to another for 100 years and more. This relationship to the land, the impact of the changing seasons, and the dependence on God for growth and harvesting of crops bring a particular perspective and understanding of scripture and sacrament. Use of natural light and clear glass revealing the surrounding countryside can help integrate the sacredness of nature with the sacred actions of the liturgy.

Pius X Church windowImmigrants in the 1800s, mostly from Europe and Ireland, came to this country with a deep faith and a commitment to provide the best worship spaces that they could afford. It was not uncommon for farmers to take out a second mortgage on their farms to provide funds to build beautiful, quality churches, which became the center of their faith and social life. The succeeding generations have been challenged to continue that level of commitment to maintain and renovate these spaces as needs have changed. When working with rural parishes there must be a genuine respect for the local history and culture with its pride and pitfalls. Nothing will destroy trust and credibility as quickly as a lack of understanding and respect of the locale and its people.

With parish facilities aging, parishes being consolidated because of the priest shortages, and our understanding of liturgy and sacraments being expanded and renewed following Vatican II, many worship spaces are in need of renovation, expansion, or replacement.  Moreover, parishes are in need of faith renewal. The parish hub of many small towns is being lost due to dwindling population, fewer active members, and lack of available sacramental ministers. With this loss comes a grieving process with all the stages of death, including denial and anger, but hopefully, in time, acceptance and renewed life. These situations call for sensitivity, gentleness, and an empathetic approach during the entire process of education/formation and decision-making. 


Mount Pleasant WindowWhen doing anything with sacred space, the first need for a faith community is to have a deep desire to provide the best education, spiritual formation, facilities, and personnel that they can for this and future generations. Without this desire accompanied by education and formation, most efforts will fall short. A time for reflecting on what has been provided by previous generations can be a source of inspiration, gratitude and impetus to do likewise. Questions to be asked are:

» “Can we do any less than our previous generations have done to build and provide for this faith community?

» Are we willing to make the same degree of sacrifices for future generations as they did for us?

» Are we willing to study, pray and be open to and led by the Spirit as we discern the needs of our faith community?


John XXIII ChurchThe next element is that of commitment. There must be a commitment of time, talent, resources, and above all, a commitment of the heart. The old saying goes that “if there is a will, there is a way.” Perhaps this commitment of the heart has never been as critical as it is now in these times of economic crisis, shrinking populations in rural areas, and a frequent lack of confidence in institutions, be they sacred or secular. If people are willing to share their limited resources, especially of time and talent, they can create beautiful sacred spaces and environments. The local professional trades persons, crafts persons, and artisans are often willing to lend their expertise, if there is a strong, broad commitment to a project and if they can be an integral part of creating something greater than themselves. In a rural community, the experience of neighbor helping neighbor is part and partial of the fiber of the local culture. Carrying that over into the faith community can be a natural transition. On the other hand, if time is not taken for education, formation and consensus building, and there is not a broad-based commitment to a project, there can be enormous peer pressure and division within a faith community that can carry into the community at large and have a very negative and divisive effect.


Easter BannerBecause of limited personnel and financial resources, a third element needed in a rural faith community is creativity. Use of local foliage and wild flowers can enhance sacred space, integrate nature into the liturgical environment, and be a cost saving measure for a small parish. Fabric in complementary shades of liturgical colors can enhance the liturgy through simple draping techniques with the possible use of some type of accent piece or pieces that relate to the liturgical season or readings of the day. Use of local building materials such as stone and wood can save costs and also help integrate a building or space into the locale.

Rural faith communities are a unique facet of the jewel we call Church. Even with limited budgets and resources, these communities continue be places of shared life and shared faith spanning several generations of believers deeply rooted in the locale and in the Gospel.

Mary Kay Panowicz, OSB is a Benedictine Sister of Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota, USA, who works as a liturgical design consultant.

Photos provided by Sr. Mary Kay Panowicz, OSB of different rural churches in Iowa where she served as Liturgical Consultant.

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