Sister Marie Gangwish, Sidekick in Ministry

Mary Magdala Community

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div., Ph.D.

Sister Marie Gangwish was a most enlightening mentor to me in the time I ministered in eastern Kentucky.  Marie was a Sister of the Congregation of Divine Providence (CDP), Melbourne, Kentucky.  While her community styled themselves among the pioneers of Catholic presence in the mountain counties of eastern Kentucky (where Catholics represented less than ½ of 1% of total population) they were pretty conservative in relationship to other religious sisters, the “joanies-come-lately” if you will, in the region.  Marie, however, danced to a different dobro.  Officially she was Chaplain at Our Lady of the Way Hospital (OLWH), Martin, Kentucky.

One cannot bypass the courage it took for her sisters to have established OLWH in a region where the population shared a deep-seated animosity for all things Roman Catholic.  As the story goes, in its startup early days when meal time at the hospital came the Sisters who delivered the meals would be accompanied by a Staff person (a “local”) who was from the area and who was well-known to the patients.  The role of that Staff person would be to reassure patients that the food was not poisoned and that the Sisters had only their recovery and their well-being in mind.  As I said, those sisters were pioneers and not just because they moved to such an isolated part of the world.

Now, Marie had developed her own job description as Chaplain, in effect.  It included extensive and long lasting follow-up with individuals and families whom she had first met when they were patients.  This became necessary particularly because some of those people had been baptized by Marie.  This was an exciting thing for me to know that Marie had exercised her own freedom as a baptized person to baptize others.  Further, I was also happy to know that the local pastor, Rev. Bill Poole, supported Marie in her ministry by registering her little flock in the Parish Register of Sacraments.  Marie did this in a selective way and only with people who, while in a time of life-threatening illness, agreed to be baptized a Catholic.

As if this wasn’t mentoring enough, Marie introduced me to Dempsey Belcher, one of her baptizees.  Dempsey was a coal miner who was forced (as were so many like him) into early retirement as a result of black lung, the cancer of one’s respiratory system that always comes with its very own death sentence.  Dempsey was unfortunately a frequent patient at OLWH, due to repeated failures of his lungs and the need for oxygen treatments.  Marie and Dempsey had many conversations in those times about faith and religion resulting in Dempsey agreeing to be baptized.

Marie invited me to accompany her to Dempsey’s home to celebrate Mass with him, his wife, and usually 2-3 others from the surroundings of Wheelwright.  There, deep in the hollows and along the Left Fork of Beaver Creek our little group of 8 or so would pray together and share Eucharist – apart and away from the long, long distance of the rules and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church.  What a loving and blessed gathering it was.

Dempsey also took me under his wing so that I could properly orient myself on my comings and goings in the mountains.  One of our conversations involved me saying how I was coming from Martin, where I lived, to his house.  The Belchers lived along the Left Fork of Beaver Creek.  Beaver Creek ran through Martin to Allen where it emptied into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River which forms the boundary marker between Kentucky and West Virginia.  The Big Sandy River empties into the Ohio River at the border towns of Catlettsburg, KY and Kenova, WV.

Back, though, to the route along Beaver Creek and its Left Fork to the Belcher home.  As you go, you pass through the towns of Drift, McDowell, Price, Hi Hat with eventually ending up in Wheelwright.  At this point I will confess to being a northerner whose way of going is driven by the compass. Up north when one goes south one says, “I’m coming down to see you.”  So, here is this northerner who drove south to see Dempsey saying, “I came down to see you.”  And Dempsey, knowing the restrictions of compass directions, is fully aware that I had just driven “up creek” to see him, which as everyone knows means I came up to see him.  In a very uncondescending way Dempsey said to me, “Son, you got your ups and downs all mixed up.”

My mentors, Marie and Dempsey, showed me the beauty of the multiple ways of going in both spiritual and geographical directions.

One other adventure Marie took me on also involved one of her baptizees.  I don’t remember the man’s name, but he died within one or two days of his baptism at Marie’s hands.  Marie announced to me that since this person died a Catholic then we should have a funeral Mass for him.  Only thing was the body was in the third day of being waked at an Old Regular Baptist Church up a holler in Floyd County.  If you have never been to eastern Kentucky then you will have to draw on your imagination of what it is like to enter narrow creek valleys, drive up the holler and then turn up another creek valley to follow that holler.  Eventually you are, as they say, “back in” with no way out but the way you came in.

Secondly, if you are unfamiliar with the Old Regular ways let me just say they are as far removed from Roman Catholic ways as one could conjure up.  When you enter the church house you first notice the sparseness of its structure and its furnishings.  You notice the pulpit.  Behind the pulpit are the pews for the saved members – men sit to the left, women to the right.  In front of the pulpit are the pews for the unsaved – those who are damned to hell until they respond to the preacher’s call.  Close to the pulpit are the chairs for the preachers.  There are always plenty of preachers.

The Old Regular tradition has the enchanting practice called “singin’ the preacher down.”  When the congregation has heard enough of one preacher someone starts to sing.  Then the competition commences.  Whoever gains loudest in volume wins, which means either the very loud preacher keeps on preaching or the more very much louder singers put that preacher down and the next preacher starts.

This was a foreign, though completely intriguing, world to me.  Not to be deterred, Marie led the way.  As we enter, the whole family is gathered as it was on that third day of a wake that continued 24/7 in the church.  On tables at the back of the church food is piled high accompanied by empty dishes all ‘round.  Children are playing games throughout the entire place.  The family and friends of the deceased, for the most part, have absolutely no idea of who we are or what we are about to do.  Marie had met the man’s wife who had invited us to offer prayer, and that was that.

Marie proceeds to dismantle the pulpit, removing the lectern portion of it so there would be a flat place for me to lay out the cloth on which to position the paten and chalice.  We proceeded with Mass with much mystified staring coming our way.

The whole time I had a vision of one of the church elders pulling up in his pick-up truck with its gun rack prominently displayed.  I thought, “Marie, you have surely got us killed this time!” – you know, having desecrated their sacred space and all.

Well, that didn’t happen.

What did happen was Marie taught me, yet again, that God is with us in all we do, particularly when what we do is God’s work.  To this day, I’d bet, thanks to Sister Marie, I am the only priest to have officiated Mass in an Old Regular Baptist Church.


Jean and I visited Marie’s grave at the CDP Motherhouse in Melbourne.  As I looked at that stone with her name etched into it I was thankful.  Thankful that when I needed a guide on how to minister to people with whom it appeared there existed a religious chasm between them and me – there was Marie, my sidekick in ministry.


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