At the epicenter of oil country within the diocese are Fr. Russ Kovash, pastor of St. Joseph in Williston, and Fr. Brian Gross, pastor of Epiphany Church in Watford City. As Catholic priests, they worked at the heart of the boom—the heart of Jesus through the Catholic Church. And now, post boom, they are staying the course and busier than people might guess.
People from across the country came to make money, while Frs. Gross and Kovash were sent to minister to Catholics. It’s been four-and-a-half years since they arrived in places that went from quiet prairie towns to cities with populations that exploded overnight. Amid the frantic pace of trying to fill every sort of need while at the same time adjusting to their new roles as pastors, was also a barrage of requests from reporters from around the world, fascinated with this modern “Wild West.”
And, then oil prices dropped. And, dropped some more. And, the reporters went onto the next big thing. But, while oil production has slowed, it hasn’t stopped. Some have left, but not everyone. Perhaps some of the best things are still happening in the Bakken oil territory. The Catholic Churches are growing—even bigger than during the boom according to Frs. Gross and Kovash.
It’s not all bust
Beginning in late 2009, hydraulic fracking technology made it easy to break into the Bakken formation’s 200,000 square miles of vast oil deposits. According to Alison Ritter, Public Information Specialist for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resource, oil production dropped from 1.4 million barrels a day and the highest price of $136 to an average output of 971,658 a day at only $34 a barrel last fall. In November of 2013, there were 191 active drilling rigs and in November of 2016, there were 39. But in January, an upswing in production was reported past the million barrel a day mark at $40.25 a barrel.
Oil production fell and many people left, however, there was surprisingly an increase in registered parishioners at the Catholic churches. Watford City’s population was only 1,400 in 2000. When Fr. Gross arrived from Bismarck in late summer of 2012, it had ballooned to around 12,000. Sunday Mass filled up, but long hours, frequent transfers, and lots of coming and going, brought ever-changing faces. Yet, despite a drop in population to around 8,000 people, Epiphany’s congregation went from 125 families in 2012 to over 200 in 2016.
In Williston, Fr. Kovash has experienced much the same. The town had been a remote ranching community. By the time Fr. Kovash arrived in 2013 to pastor St. Joseph’s (Williston’s only Catholic church among 26 others), it was a whirlwind of activity. The population had grown from less than 14,000 to around 40,000. It is now estimated to be around 30,000.
Although life in Williston is less chaotic these days, Fr. Kovash said that he and his associate pastor, Fr. Joseph Evinger still have very long days In 2012, he said there were fewer than 900 registered families. “Now, despite losing a lot of good people, we are at 980 households,” Father Kovash said. “There were maybe more bodies in the church before, but a lot of them didn’t want to register.”
Parish life grows
“At the height of the boom, there were as many single men as families,” Fr. Gross said. “Now, there’s mostly families as wives and children have moved here.” He explained that there is still an industry, but things have slowed to a calmer pace.
With more stability in the parish, Fr. Gross explained that the congregation members have become very active and there’s more of a church family. “During the height of the boom, it was mostly men and all they would do is work,” he said. “I saw some of them on a Sunday and some once a month or see someone four times and then never see them again.”
Since the oil slowdown, parish life and spiritual growth has blossomed, according to him. “We have adoration on Friday for 12 hours, and daily Mass,” he said. “Our Knights of Columbus has come back from the dead and there are active youth and groups of young adults, and men and women’s groups where we bring in speakers.” At the last young adults group, he said there were 40 couples, around a third of them not even Catholic.
“Three or four years ago, many of these people didn’t feel this was their home,” Fr. Gross said. “Now, many feel that home is Watford. Part of the desire with these different groups is to become a Church family which helps give them a sense of belonging.”
In Williston, Fr. Kovash said he welcomes the calmer pace. “It was so frantic before,” he said. “We were spending a lot of time trying to get people connected with help.”
That still happen but to a lesser extent, he said, and although there are social service agencies, churches still fill in the cracks or helps after hours.
One big change at St. Joseph’s has been the increase in Hispanic population that came for jobs. The Bismarck Diocese was awarded a five-year grant two years ago to bring in three religious sisters from Mexico.
“Many of our Hispanic parishioners don’t speak English,” Fr. Kovash said. “The sisters help prepare them for the sacraments. Twenty-five of our 46 First Communicants are Hispanic.” The sisters also help prepare the liturgy for the twice-a-month Spanish Masses where 100-140 show up, down from around 180 at the peak.
“It’s been satisfying to see the fruits of how God works and what God is doing up here—from conversions to reversions to people who weren’t engaged in the Church and now are engaged,” Fr. Kovash said. “There are a lot of great people here who love the Lord and are on fire for their faith.”
Father Kovash to speak at Women’s Lenten retreat on March 11
Father Kovash refers to his time in Williston as the hardest, most rewarding work he has ever done. As the featured speaker for the Lenten retreat for women this year at the Church of St. Anne in Bismarck on March 11, he will share how that experience has enriched him.
His talk, titled: “Gratitude, the Virtue that Changes Us,” will explain how he has come to appreciate even the smallest things and how serving in Williston has been a part of that.
“When we start really reflecting daily how ridiculously good God is to us,” he said, “Then it automatically leads to this disposition to the Lord: What good can I do for all the good you’ve done for me?”
Having gratitude changes our hearts, according to Fr. Kovash, and when we become faithful, we develop joy in our lives. “People are looking for joy and gratitude leads to great joy and leads to the passion and mission of God,” he explained. “I’m a very different person by cultivating this disposition of heart which includes this gratitude and I want to share it with people.”