Faithful Americana: Chapel railcars built faith, and so can we!

Catholic Extension's first railcar, the St. Anthony.

Catholic Extension’s first railcar, the St. Anthony, ca. 1908 (PD)

The St. Anthony, St. Peter and St. Paul. Did you know these chapel railcars once forged into frontier territories in the U. S., bringing Mass and the Sacraments to remote peoples? I learned about this aspect of Americana while working at America’s Catholic Extension Society in Chicago, as writer, then Managing Editor, of EXTENSION Magazine. Gifts to Extension provided for these specially-adapted train cars outfitted beautifully like chapels: glossy woodwork, lovely altar linens, and all. The first car, St. Anthony, was built by Pullman Company in 1886, and donated in part by a Pullman Company vice-president.

Itinerant missionaries rode the rails in these chapels, and word spread far and wide. The chapel car is coming! People arrived for Mass via foot, horseback and carriage, wearing their Sunday best. Opportunities for Catholics to see and receive Our Lord in the Eucharist in far reaches of Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, in the West and Pacific Northwest, were rare. In time, churches emerged in scattered towns along the rails, in former chapel car stops. In Oregon, the St. Anthony is credited with planting more than 80 Catholic parishes. To build up these new faith communities, keep these little missions thriving, took effort from every family.

Today, in our large, well-established parishes, we might feel invisible: that if we don’t put energy or effort into keeping the parish running, don’t volunteer with catechism classes or help participate in food drives and the like, that’s ok, the next guy will do it. But it’s good to recall the history of our Faith in this nation, and how Catholics struggled to establish faith communities, especially in areas where Catholics were few, or misunderstood.

When we go to our churches, we can know that generations of Catholics before us paved the way for us to enjoy a Catholic presence today. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and should pick up the torch ourselves. In mission territories across the world, a faith presence is not at all taken for granted. Consider areas where terrorist groups are targeting Catholic churches and even whole villages, where Catholics are on the move, fleeing for their lives, or trying to stand strong and rooted in a certain area despite threats and violence from neighbors. These Catholics know their priests, religious, communities and churches are precious gifts to be cherished and guarded.

In the old chapel car days, people would travel many miles, put aside everything, to come to Mass at the rails. The Church teaches us that the Eucharist is the Source and Summit of our lives. In the Eucharist, faith thrives. Traveling miles under the beating sun, in rainstorms or in snow, people had a sense of the importance of the Eucharist that drew them.

Rooted in the Eucharist, missionaries and their people today pray and build up the Church. Wealthier, urban churches do, too, facing their own unique brands of challenges. What bold living out of faith will Jesus in  the Eucharist draw from us? Would we travel miles and miles, lose sleep, battle inclement conditions, to attend Mass? The Faith as lived out in crisis-torn regions can be a bold and irresistible thing to witness. The level of commitment among Catholics undergoing severe hardships can seem a far cry from the yawning Catholic congregations at a typical suburban Mass.

So, how can we stir up a depth and earnestness of faith in ourselves, our churches and communities? First, it’s good to remember the Holy Spirit does the stirring, and is there ready to work in us each and every moment. It’s up to us to trust, and to stop and open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s action each day…each moment.

Do I attend Mass and the Sacraments reverently? Do I delve into Scripture daily? Do I allow the Holy Spirit to renew me? In mission territories, priests, religious and lay people who are building up faith in others, start with and continue on, with these basics. If we can get the Holy Mass right, in terms of going and participating and letting Christ’s Divine Life shine through us, if we can wedge into our days and commit upon a daily prayer time or times, then so many other things will fall into place.

Many times, I would be reporting about conditions in some mission territory, and a missionary would tell me how a child had led his or her whole family to the Faith. The parents had perhaps fallen away from church attendance, but something worked in that child’s soul, and the questions would start. Why can’t we go to church on Sunday? Why are we sitting home? The child’s urging would eventually stir up the parents. After the simple return to Mass, and witnessing their child’s enthusiasm and freshness in becoming baptized and receiving Jesus for the first time in the Eucharist, a family would return to the heart and practice of faith. A child’s focus and persistence led the way. It’s our job, to retain a youthful enthusiasm in our faith. To renew our yes. If we are a spiritually renewed people, then we will feel called to physically renew our churches, as well…to maintain them as places of beauty and importance. Thriving parishes and peoples can renew whole neighborhoods.

Question to Ponder: Do we often complain about this or that aspect of the Mass, priest’s homily, or other parishioners? Let’s remember our wonderful heritage as Catholics. Let’s say a prayer as to how we can be, not faithful complainers, but faith builders.

Copyright 2016 Marianna Bartholomew
This post originally aired as Marianna’s Missionary Moments segment on Deacon Tom & Dee Fox’s Catholic Vitamins Show, “B-for Building.”



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