by Moira Cullings
FRANKFORT — In the early years of the church in Kansas, Catholic priests had to traverse the territory by horseback, traveling a regular route — or circuit — from one settlement to another to another.
These “traveling clergy” came to be known as “circuit riders.”
Today, Father Daniel Schmitz is what you might call a modern-day circuit rider, responsible for three rural parishes miles apart from each other: Annunciation Parish in Frankfort, St. Monica- St. Elizabeth Parish in Blue Rapids and St. Columbkille Parish in Blaine.
And though he’s traded the horse for his trusty Chevy Malibu (2009 model, 108,000 miles on the odometer), Father Schmitz has a similar goal: to bring the joy of the Catholic faith to people who aren’t typically easy to reach.
A smooth transition
Father Schmitz was ordained in 2013 and spent the first two years of his priesthood as associate pastor of St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood and chaplain of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park.
Making the jump from a large parish inside a heavily populated area to a town with one restaurant and a population of around 700 people wasn’t easy.
“The most frequent image for me was downshifting about three gears,” said Father Schmitz.
“Because you go from 2,400 families and a high school to 300 families total,” he said, “and parishes that people are heavily involved [in].
“I don’t want to say they run themselves, but they take care of so much because it’s been set up for 120 years.”
Despite the difference in size, Father Schmitz’s first priesthood assignment prepared him well for his three-parish gig.
The distance between the three parishes is similar in length to his old route from St. Michael’s to Aquinas, as Frankfort is about 14 miles from both Blaine and Blue Rapids.
“I probably do the same amount of traveling on the weekends,” he said. “From where I came from, it’s not much of an adjustment, the driving part of it.”
And life as a small town pastor, Father Schmitz has discovered, moves at a slower pace, making the responsibility of managing three parishes a feasible challenge.
The warm welcome he received from people all over Frankfort, Blue Rapids and Blaine was also a huge help.
“Half the town is not Catholic, and yet, within a few weeks,” he said, “the local paper did an article on me.”
“And just from other people talking, most everybody knew who I was and started coming up to introduce themselves to me.
“Whether it’s the local grocery store owner or the restaurant guy coming up and just saying, ‘Hey, welcome to town,’ I appreciated that a lot.”
A day in the life
Father Schmitz’s schedule is designed to give an equal amount of care and attention to all three parishes.
“I live [in Frankfort] and the office is here, and this parish is twice as big as the other two,” he said.
“It was easy to host things here and expect people to drive, which works. But it’s been better, as I’ve adjusted, to put on things at the other two parishes as well,” he added.
Now that he has a better grip on the needs of each parish, Father Schmitz works diligently to attend to each one.
The people of Frankfort and the surrounding towns are grateful for the hard work he puts into each day.
“The first time I met him, I thought, ‘He’s young. He won’t like old people,’” said Ann Barrett, a parishioner of Annunciation Parish.
“But he does, he likes everyone. . . . and I think everyone really enjoys him,” she added.
Barrett looks forward to Wednesday mornings because that’s when Father Schmitz says Mass at the Frankfort Community Care Home, which she visits almost every week.
“I think it’s wonderful he takes the time,” she said. “Even when he was on vacation, he came down and said Mass. He knows all these people.”
Another part of Father Schmitz’s routine is visiting the homebound each Friday to chat and keep them company.
“I really enjoying hearing their stories,” he said. “They’re amazing people.”
The connection he’s able to make with the families in his parishes is much deeper than what he experienced at a larger parish.
“You get to know the backstories easier and be part of the family when struggles of all stripes come up,” he said, “versus at a huge parish where somebody’s in a crisis and you’ve never met them before.”
When Father Schmitz isn’t visiting people or in meetings, he’s in his office attending to emails, phone calls and various projects.
“A fair amount of my free time is also [figuring out] how we can engage the fallen-away Catholics and the non-Catholics in town,” he said.
He especially enjoys his afternoons, which are filled with exercise, Holy Hours and the occasional nap.
Father Schmitz’s weekends are busier, with two Masses on Saturdays and two Masses on Sundays, starting at Annunciation, followed by St. Columbkille, St. Monica-St. Elizabeth and finally back at Annunciation.
‘Getting to know you’
Every parish has a personality, and Father Schmitz has gotten to know all three.
“St. Monica-St. Elizabeth has lots of babies,” he said. “It’s 60-65 families and a big chunk are elderly or widowed, but there are over 20 kids under seven years old in these families.”
“There’s a nice core for a small parish of young families,” he continued.
St. Columbkille also has a nice base of younger families, but not as many as exist in St. Monica-St. Elizabeth because there’s really no town there, he said.
“Annunciation is certainly the most active [parish], having more than twice as many people and a bit longer history,” he said.
Annunciation has 170 families, compared to 70 at St. Columbkille and 65 at St. Monica-St. Elizabeth.
“St. Columbkille is very tight-knit,” said Father Schmitz. “A lot of the family members have stayed there, so a big chunk of parishioners are all related.”
“From what I’ve seen there,” he said, “they more or less get along with each other, which is nice for families.”
Despite their minor differences, the three parishes have much in common.
“There’s certainly a deep love for the faith at all three parishes,” he said.
Father Schmitz grew up in a small town not far from Frankfort, so he is more than familiar with the needs of rural parishes.
And now that he’s busy with three of his own, having family nearby is a huge bonus, especially when he can take time to fish with his grandpa or help his uncle on the farm.
“Growing up on the farm, I hated having to do farm work,” he said. “Now that I get to do farm work, it’s a lot of fun.”
Father Schmitz’s transition to country living was pretty simple, thanks to his own childhood experience.
But for someone like Jason Roberts, a first-year seminarian at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis who grew up in the suburbs, embracing rural life wasn’t easy.
“I’ve never been in a town this small, and there are things that I certainly miss about the city,” he said. “There’s nowhere to eat. There’s nowhere to shop. It’s been a hard adjustment because with city life, I can sort of go wherever I want for entertainment.”
Roberts spent this past summer in Frankfort and got a good taste of what life as a small town pastor would be like.
“All of the parishioners are really kind,” he said. “They’re very friendly and they’re invested in me as a seminarian. That’s a great privilege.”
Roberts also learned what it takes to run three rural parishes, courtesy of Father Schmitz’s guidance and example.
“[Father Schmitz] has helped to form me in the pastoral side of parish ministry and he’s shown me a lot of valuable lessons,” said Roberts.
“He’s allowed me to be part of everything in the parish,” he continued, “from serving Masses to the care home to parishioners’ homes for dinner to adoration and parish council meetings.
“If it happens here, I have the opportunity to participate. That gives me a lot of well-rounded experience.”
Generally, the archdiocese doesn’t send seminarians out to rural parishes so early on, but Roberts is grateful for the experience, he said.
“It’s helped me, number one, to appreciate the diversity of our diocese,” he said. “But I know it’s also made me more excited to be in [the] seminary and to be able to serve people here.”
“I am definitely more willing to come out here just because of the experience I’ve had this summer and the kindness of the people and the desire they have to learn their faith,” he said.
For Roberts, all it took was some firsthand experience to change his perception of life as a pastor of rural parishes.
Father Schmitz played a hand in that, but the young pastor continues to learn his own lessons as well.
“Out here, I’ve realized how a priest’s life is all about showing the mercy of God,” said Father Schmitz. “And I get to be a part of all these good works of God that are being done here.
“That’s what I love being part of.”