“If I didn’t have my faith, I would have been helpless, useless. But I knew God wanted me to continue on and help folks.”
By Kevin Russell
Fr. Tom Kirkendoll (TM ’75) has spent over 40 years serving others as part of Glenmary Home Missioners.
Glenmary Home Missioners is a Catholic missionary dedicated to serving the spiritual and material needs of people living throughout Appalachia and the South. The group aims to bring the Catholic Church to people who live in counties where the Church is not effectively present, often where less than one percent of the total population is Catholic. Working in counties where poverty levels are almost twice the national average, Glenmarians also serve the poor through outreach and work for social justice.
Although he knew he was interested in religious life, as a young Pio Nono student, Fr. Tom was unsure of his career path. He credits a Pio Nono guidance counselor with connecting him to Glenmary.
“A guidance counselor at Pio Nono, Fr. [Robert] Fessler, asked me what I was interested in, and I didn’t know,” Fr. Tom recalled. “I said, ‘I want to be a missionary, but languages for me don’t come easy.’ And he put on his desk this Glenmary Challenge [magazine] … he said, ‘read it and if you’re interested, write a letter, and I’ll mail it.”
Fr. Tom continued writing back and forth with Glenmary for nearly four years while meeting occasionally with Glenmarians traveling through Milwaukee. He hoped to join the missionary immediately after high school but was told he did not meet the academic requirements. Displaying his resiliency even at a young age, Fr. Tom kept striving toward his goal; he enrolled at the University of Dayton, which happened to be near the new location for Glenmary headquarters, and earned a degree in sociology.
After proving himself academically, Fr. Tom officially joined Glenmary in 1977. After serving as a layperson for ten years, he graduated from Washington Theological Union in 1987, and two weeks after graduation, he was ordained as a priest. His first assignment sent him to rural Georgia, where he served for about a year and a half before returning to Glenmary headquarters in Ohio.
Throughout the 1990s, Fr. Tom rotated between vocational work at Glenmary headquarters and pastoral work in Claxton, a small town in southeast Georgia. In Claxton, he organized a successful campaign to raise funds to build a new church for his growing congregation. A cancer diagnosis forced him back to Ohio, but after about five months at headquarters, he returned to Georgia to lead his parish.
He thought he had made a home in Claxton, but just a few months into his time back in Georgia, he was hit by a car and knocked unconscious for three months.
“If I didn’t have my faith, I would have been helpless, useless,” Fr. Tom said. “But I knew God wanted me to continue on and help folks.”
After recovering back at headquarters, Fr. Tom eventually convinced his superiors to let him return to the field. He was assigned to a formation house in Beaver Dam, Kentucky, and traveled to local parishes to celebrate Mass.
The generosity of local parishioners often surprised Fr. Tom. Without fail, parishioners would volunteer their time to pick him up from the formation house and drive him to their church so he could preside over Mass. He sometimes needed help navigating the church, particularly with stairs, but someone was always willing to assist him.
“There was one place I would go every once in a while. They had two girl altar servers, and they were arguing. And the nun comes back and asks, ‘what are you arguing over?’ And what I heard almost floored me. They were arguing over who was going to help me up the step.”
For most of the past two decades, Fr. Tom has served Glenmary in the novitiate house, where he offers guidance and mentorship for those considering religious life. Before taking their oaths, prospective Glenmarians spend a year living in the novitiate, learning more about their faith and community while deciding whether to commit to the religious order.
Fr. Tom keeps himself busy outside the novitiate as well, celebrating Mass at local parishes and conducting Marriage Encounter programs for couples.