Challenge to Paris church members: Three days, one home

Discussion during 'Why Catholic?' spurs local action

By Maryanne Meyerriecks, Fort Smith Correspondent

PARIS --Two days before Thanksgiving, St. Joseph Church parishioner Martha Ullrich headed down Tanyard Mountain Road to bring a food basket to "Miss Mary," a 77-year-old widow in the parish who was known for her warm smile and generous spirit.

"Whenever we would bring Miss Mary a food basket, she would always give us cookies," Ullrich said. "She was so appreciative and hospitable to us, whether we came with food or just to say hello."

When Ullrich arrived that night, she found Mary Farris huddled by a small heater wearing a coat and gloves. Her small home was so cold and leaky that she had to cover everything she owned with plastic sheets. And as Ullrich headed back down the road to host the last "Why Catholic?" session for the fall, she couldn't help thinking about Farris who never complained about living in a leaky home without running water, working plumbing or adequate heat.
After sharing Scriptures and exploring the Catechism of the Catholic Church, each "Why Catholic?" group member chose a way to "live the good news" during the next week. As Ullrich described her visit to Farris, the group came up with an ambitious plan -- to build a warm, dry new house for Farris before Christmas.

In rural Logan County, no plans or permits are needed for home construction. Farris accepted their offer graciously, and, after all the "Why Catholic?" groups met with Father Eugene Luke, OSB, St. Joseph's pastor, work began almost immediately.

Teens from the youth group and other parish volunteers started digging a foundation on land next to Farris' existing home, and a bricklayer laid the foundation the following weekend. Everyone
in the parish got involved doing construction work; donating cash, building materials, furniture or household items; and cooking for and feeding the workers.

The 336-square-foot home, consisting of kitchen, living area, bedroom, bathroom and laundry closet, was finished in three days. St. Joseph parishioners started on a cold, rainy Saturday, Dec. 8, and worked all day to get the building "in the dry." On Sunday and Monday they finished up and helped Farris move in later in the evening.

Although the home wasn't completely finished on the inside, it was warm and dry, with a brand-new green asphalt roof. It was the first time in years that Farris was able to sleep in a bed without worrying about being rained on.

Almost all the materials were donated -- windows, flooring, doors, fixtures, appliances, paneling, paint, shower and toilet.

"I think we've got somebody in almost every trade in the church," Farris, who has attended St. Joseph for 24 years, said.

Bricklayers, electricians, termite exterminators, plumbers, carpenters, and other skilled tradesmen donated their services to the project. Church members also donated a bed, a handmade quilt, a loveseat, a recliner, new dishes and linens.

Farris was thrilled with everything in the home, proudly showing visitors the washer and dryer hidden behind double doors, a shower with a built-in seat in the bathroom, a new stove with an overhead range hood, a wall heating/air conditioning unit, and new kitchen cabinets.

"They were too pretty to paint," Farris said. "I thought we could shellac them, but they said we should use polyurethane."

A picture of the Holy Family hangs behind Farris' bed. It has been in the family since 1905. Her parents, whom she came back to Paris from Missouri to care for 24 years ago, left it to her.

"When I die, I'm leaving it to the church," Farris said, "because that's what they wanted."

"I can tell you for sure prayers are answered," she said, "and I have been praying for a long time. I'd used up all my savings and was living on Social Security. I tried to get a grant to fix my house, but it never went through. No words are enough to express how thankful I am to them."

The parish benefited as well, growing closer and coming together as one to help their long-term parishioner.

"I think this was the best Christmas we've ever had," Ullrich said.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 19, 2008, issue of Arkansas Catholic, the weekly newspaper for the Diocese of Little Rock, P.O. Box 7417, Little Rock, AR 72217, www.arkansas-catholic.org. It is reprinted with permission. 

Click to learn more about Why Catholic?

About RENEW International RENEW International is a canonically-recognized Catholic organization based in Plainfield, NJ, in the Archdiocese of Newark. RENEW International fosters spiritual renewal in the Catholic tradition by empowering individuals and communities to encounter God in everyday life, deepen and share faith, and connect faith with action. RENEW International has a 27-year record in revitalizing parish life in over 130 dioceses in the United States, touching the lives of 25 million people through its renewal processes. RENEW International also reaches many thousands outside the United States, having served people in 23 countries, across six continents and in 44 languages.