Elk County Benedict Option
I’m very, very pleased to present to you this piece by Sam MacDonald, who says that Catholics seeking the Benedict Option should consider moving to his part of the world: Elk County, Pennsylvania. Check it out:
One of the primary obstacles to Rod Dreher’s proposed Benedict Option is the question of community stability, especially with regard to economics. How are all these orthodox Christians going to support themselves? You can move near the Benedictine monks at Clear Creek Abbey, sure, and that might be spiritually rewarding, but your kids can’t eat Gregorian chants.
Ideally, you’d have a critical mass of deeply Christian people who are entrepreneurial and technically astute, who could employ a wide range of people at a wage high enough to support traditional families. People would be like-minded enough to foster a strong sense of community, but not close-minded and unwelcoming. It would be self-sufficient enough to keep the worst of popular culture at bay, but self-confident enough to engage with the world.
Yeah, right. Like you can just build something like that.
You probably can’t, but don’t worry; somebody already did. I live there. And we need 10,000 of you to come join us.
Seriously. I live in Elk County, Pennsylvania. If you are interested in the BenOp, you need to stop asking Rod how this can possibly work. You need to pack up a U-Haul and move here. I am guessing there are other places like it. But ignore those places. This place is better.
Elk County is rural, about two hours from Pittsburgh, two hours from Buffalo and two hours from Erie. We have a big elk herd, which is nice. A federally designated Wild and Scenic river runs through the town I live in. We are on the doorstep of the Allegheny National Forest and a wide variety of state forests and state parks and state game lands. It’s pretty. But again, pretty doesn’t get you to heaven, and it doesn’t pay your electric bill.
That’s OK, because Elk County also might be the most Catholic place in America. St. Marys was established in in the 1840s when a pile of German immigrants fled anti-Catholic persecution in Philadelphia and Baltimore by purchasing 35,000 acres of sheer wilderness. In the earliest days, shivering around a desperate campsite, a visiting priest from Pittsburgh had a vision:
Within the glare of the fire I saw a new city, the home of a Christian youth who would choose a more perfect life, and from whom God would choose Apostles for America. I saw thousands of Catholics around the cross, the symbol of true liberty, and I pictured to myself this oasis where many German Catholics would find comfortable homes, the true faith and the salvation of their souls.
Within a few years, the first Benedictine convent in America was established in St. Marys, and a BenOp community was born.
It’s still here. Today, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, is the largest community in Elk County, with about 13,000 residents. It has three Catholic parishes. There are four others serving the other 18,000 people scattered in little towns throughout the county. That’s a LOT of parishes for 31,000 people, but more than 70 percent of the local population is Catholic.
Just as important, the Catholic school system is great.
OK, I admit that I am the president of that school system, but consider these facts: We have enough kids that our Catholic high school still has a football team. (Our basketball team won states a few years back. So did our girls softball team. Our boys baseball team came in second.) We have the last marching band of any school in the Diocese of Erie, and the greatest art teacher in the state of Pennsylvania.
And we are CATHOLIC. The community demands it. About 20 percent of the local student population is in Catholic schools, which in an extraordinarily high capture rate. We recently transitioned St. Leo School, in Ridgway, to a full blown classical academy. St. Boniface, in Kersey, is structured as a multi-age school. The largest elementary school, in St. Marys, has a strong focus on STEM in order to feed local industry (more on that in a second) but it is also deeply committed to faith formation.
Unlike many Catholic schools that are geared toward the economic and financial elite, we are open enrollment. Tuition at the high school is about $4,500 per year. Tuition at the elementary and middle schools is around $3,000. A very high percentage of our dads come to school conferences in Carhartts and steel toe boots. Most of our kids go on to great things at competitive universities, but we have no desire to say that 100 percent of our graduates go on to college.
It just so happens that Elk County is the powdered metal capital of the world. That might not mean much to you, but if you have a car, a lawnmower or a toaster, there’s a 100 percent chance that something you own was made here. Ever read a Harry Potter book? You were holding paper made 10 miles from where I am typing this, from trees that were grown here. It’s also the black cherry capital of the world and we have a thriving oil and gas industry. We also have a gargantuan lightbulb factory. And …
Listen, we have a lot of factories, OK? And the biggest problem those factories face is not competition from Mexico or China, it’s a shortage of workers.
This does not fit “the narrative,” but it’s the truth. I recently joined a newly formed advisory council called Manufacturing Education, and Employment Advancement (MEEA). It consists largely of factory owners desperate to find qualified workers. They estimate that over the next decade they will need upwards of 10,000 bodies to replace retiring workers and staff their expansion plans.
Last week there was an ad in the paper for an entry level worker at one of the local plants. GED required. It started at $15.60 an hour. A greenhorn at the papermill can expect to earn upwards of $50,000 first year.
Cost of living? If you walked into Ridgway tomorrow and offered my mom $40,000 for the house she raised four kids in, she’d probably take it.
Not all the plants pay that much, but almost all of them have a path to middle-class living if you can show up, and show up sober. Of course, all of these factories are also in constant need of highly skilled engineers, accountants, HR administrators, etc. Recent efforts to take advantage of our natural setting and brand the region as “The Pennsylvania Wilds” have born real fruit. When I was a kid, the Clarion River was so dirty that the only fish you could catch in it was a sucker. But the paper mill in Johnsonburg made major environmental investments and now the Clarion is a nationally renowned trout stream. As such, we have a growing tourism industry as well.
Did I mention the Straub Brewery? It’s the best beer in America.
I make this argument because, honestly, we need people to move here. But not just any people. Our region was built for the express purpose of bringing people closer to God, in a safe, vibrant and thriving community. Sound familiar? I see so many people questioning Rod on the practicality of the BenOp proposal, and I see so many throwing up their hands because they feel like it simply cannot happen in America today. But it does happen. It is happening.
Will you have easy access to the opera and great research universities? Not locally. But let’s be honest, when was the last time you went to the opera? Penn State is just a little over an hour away from us. And really and truly, the Internet has made the world a smaller place.
Rod often worries about Christians making a living, and that’s legitimate. If you are a pharmacist, what will the law say about your refusal to be an “ally” in the fight for perceived LGBT rights? That’s an open question. But guess what? Nobody cares if the die setter is an ally. And you can make a great living as a die setter around here.
Do we accept outsiders? Well, there is a good chance that we will make fun of you as a flatlander for a few decades. We will scowl at you when you carry on about fancy beer and other evidence of city-living. But if you have any concerns I would direct you to Dr. Guillermo Udarbe, a doctor who moved to Ridgway from the Philippines in the 1970s. He’s the mayor now.
The Benedict Option is going to mean many things to many different people. Some will move next to the monks in Clear Creek and make a go of it. Others might set up shop near a deeply religious school in an urban area, like folks have done at St. Jerome’s in Hyattsville, Maryland. Others might actually go off the grid and build that proverbial walled compound in the mountains. Nothing will be right for everybody.
All I am saying is that people don’t need to get too caught up in how to invent a place that already exists. In fact, Elk County isn’t a place, it’s an era to which people insist we cannot return.
High paying industrial jobs that can support a large, single earner family? Affordable Catholic schools that take their faith seriously? A place where most of your neighbors go to church every Sunday? A place where seeing young families with five to eight kids isn’t all that weird? A place where you can walk to the woods and hunt with a rifle? Where people still build stuff? Where people leave the keys in their car ignition when they park it and night?
Yes. That is Elk County. And it is now.
Want to give it a look? E-mail me. I will put you in touch with the people who can put you to work and get you into a house. The community is just now realizing that we need to mobilize to sell what we have. Just as important, we are realizing that many thousands of people across America are desperately interested in taking refuge in a place like this.