April 1, 2015
As tens of thousands of workers pour into Western North Dakota, it is a unique time to be a priest in the Bismarck Diocese’s oil patch region. Booms came and went in the ’50s and ’80s, but this time is different. It is bigger, expected to last for many years, and it coincided with a national economic slump.
For many of the oil refugees, North Dakota is their last hope to escape ruin. Often, that means arriving here with little money and no place to stay. Loneliness, temptations, language barriers, economic hardships, and adjusting to a new world, are all part of the needs our priests must address.
Pastoring in “Wild West” boomtowns was not covered in seminary. So the priests assigned there have simply rolled up their sleeves and dug in, certain that God has placed them there for such a time as this. During interviews, Fathers Brian Gross, Russ Kovash, and Keith Streifel shared what it is like to serve in former sleepy prairie towns that have been transformed almost overnight.
Fr. Brian arrived in Watford City as pastor for Epiphany in the summer of 2012. He came after serving his first two years at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck. Watford City had gone from 1,400 people to over 3,200 in the last six years. According to Fr. Brian, Epiphany’s congregation has grown 50 percent since he arrived for an average of around 250 Mass goers each Sunday. “But, around 50 faces in the pews change from week to week,” he said. “We don't know from weekend to weekend who has left and gone home, who just didn’t come to Mass, or whose job has moved.”
One big challenge, he said, is filling in the gaps among so much transience. “A lot of people are trying to bring order to their lives but in some sense, the reason they are here is because their life was already chaotic.” He said that this often means children have not been baptized or received the sacraments or parents are not in valid Catholic marriages.
His work in Watford City has given him a new perspective. “I’ve learned what intercessory prayer really is,” Fr. Brian said. “I am responsible for everyone within my boundaries.” He explained that in spite of a generally positive attitude in Watford City there is a lot of pain too. “There is the local 70-year old guy and his wife who are suffering that their town is not their town and never will be again; the guy who is there without his family and was not as faithful as he should have been; the isolation of a man camp room; trying to keep a marriage alive; loneliness and suffering from moving to a new community, or living cooped up in a camper…so many challenges.”
The situation demands flexibility. “I meet with people for confession when they call because schedules are all over the place,” he said. “I also spend a lot of time with guys here on their own that need to talk with someone.” Fr. Brian said he tries to make himself present by being involved in the community and invites parishioners to encourage friends and co-workers to come to Mass.
In spite of stresses and hardships, Fr. Brian pointed out that there is a lot of good news. “People came because they had to,” he said, “but many love the feel of this community and plan on staying.” The oil boom also presents opportunities to live the Catholic faith, according to him. “For instance, we have one guy helping people to winterize their RV’s when they get here and didn’t realize how cold it would be.”
The Catholic message, he explained, is that Jesus is always looking to do something good. “We need to be asking what good things does Jesus want us to do with this? He put the oil into the ground and he knew we were going to find it, so what does he want us to do with it?”
Fr. Russ Kovash arrived as pastor at St. Joseph in Williston also in the summer of 2012. He serves with associates Fr. Joseph Evinger, and Fr. Biju Antony, who is originally from India. The city leads the way as the fastest-growing “micropolitan” area according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Population jumped from 13,014 in 2009 to 29,595 by 2014 and perhaps around 50,000 when temporary workers are included.
“We have a school and church to run and a lot more going on here,” Fr. Kovash said. “Some days, we might have as many as 20 people come in. Every person needs time for us to find out what they need.” But, he said his staff is “phenomenal” so they handle it well.
In spite of the economic growth, Fr. Kovash said that their biggest challenge is homelessness. People come to get a job, but they don’t have a place to live. It can take three weeks to find a job and another couple of weeks before a paycheck comes. “Some days it is overwhelming at our office—person after person coming to us crying,” Fr. Kovash said.
Although there are many high-paying jobs in Williston, rents are also very high. A one-bedroom apartment averages $2,300 a month, according to Apartment Guide, an online site for apartment seekers. Four churches pick up the slack that Human Services does not cover. “They don’t buy bus tickets home or buy a water pump for someone’s car because he doesn’t get paid for 10 more days,” Fr. Kovash said. “We are filling in the nooks and crannies for the abundant needs out there.”
Fr. Kovash was ordained at the age of 43, five years ago. Prior to that, he worked for 10 years in the insurance and financial planning fields. Every day, after Mass, he would ask God, “What do you want to do with my life?” He said he does not ask that question anymore. “It’s crystal clear that this is what God has asked me to do,” he said. “And it is a beautiful work, because it’s easy to see Jesus in the people we help. Even if my tank is empty at the end of the day, there is great peace; it’s a great job.”
Part of the big influx has included a large Hispanic population. So many, in fact, that the Catholic Extension Society identified Williston as mission territory. They provided a five-year grant for three Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Guadalupe from Mexico to help serve the Catholics there that speak little or no English; to evangelize, teach religious education, and help families to prepare for the sacraments. “We will keep the sisters very busy,” Fr. Kovash said. During their third year, they will train lay people to take their place once their five years are up.
On the southern edge of the Bakken formation, Dickinson is also experiencing growing pains, expanding from 16,020 people in 2000 to 26,771 in 2012 and is projected to reach 42,500 by 2020. Fr. Streifel has served as pastor of the Church of St. Joseph for the last six years. Although he said his parish size has not expanded much, there have been many changing faces. “Some older people have sold their homes and left while younger families are moving into town,” he said. “Just this year, we went from 100 folks in faith formation classes to 130.”
The biggest change Fr. Streifel says he has seen is the increase in the Hispanic population. “It’s funny, but I especially noticed it in the vegetable section at the grocery store. People would pull me over and ask, ‘Hey, are you a Catholic priest’ or someone might say ‘hola’ at the checkout counter.”
“One thing that I’ve seen among the Hispanics is a basic sense of the need for the sacraments. Even if they have been away, there is an appreciation for the sacraments so we often have to help prepare them to catch them up.” St. Joseph’s now has Mass in Spanish twice a month. People from the surrounding communities will also come. “We are not going to expand that though,” he explained. “We don’t want to be separate but to be one big community and attend Mass together.”