CHESTERTOWN, Md. – Mention Kent County in the Diocese of Wilmington and the first thing that comes to mind for most Catholics is the space between New Castle County and the beach. A destination on the Eastern Shore? Not so much.
“You can call it the other Kent County in the Diocese of Wilmington,” said Father Paul Campbell, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish and its mission church, St. John’s in nearby Rock Hall, both in Kent County, Md.
Sacred Heart is one of just two parishes in Kent County. (The other is St. Dennis in Galena.) The population of the entire county, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, was just under 21,000. By comparison, the city of Salisbury, Md., registered 30,434 residents in the same census.
The small size makes for an intimate feeling around Chestertown and Rock Hall, according to Father Campbell.
“The joke in Chestertown and in Rock Hall is you don’t have to use a turn indicator because everybody knows where you’re going anyway,” said the priest, who has been at the parish since 2006.
That works well for his parish, he said, translating into an abundance of volunteers who run ministries similar to what a large parish might offer. Sacred Heart and St. John’s offer services to a hospital, four nursing homes and Washington College, for example. St. John’s also is home to a cemetery that dates back more than a century.
“We have everything a large parish has because the needs don’t change. What we have in the smaller parish is a wonderful amount of people stepping up to help out and volunteering their time,” he said.
The county is home to a number of retirees from Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
“They’ve retired from their jobs, but they’re clearly not dead,” Father Campbell said.
One of those volunteers is Georgia Barth, who has been a parishioner for six years, moving from Wilmington. She arranges flowers at Sacred Heart. Barth said Father Campbell is one of the main reasons she likes the parish.
“He gives wonderful homilies. He always has time to listen to you. He’s interested in you. He’s just a good person,” she said.
Located about 80 miles from Wilmington, Sacred Heart and St. John’s are home to about 600 families. The parish has a religious-education director and two part-time employees in addition to Father Campbell.
The pastor keeps busy on weekends, saying Mass on late Saturday afternoons at Sacred Heart, driving about 13 miles to Rock Hall for 7:30 a.m. Mass Sunday morning, then back to Chestertown for two more Masses at Sacred Heart.
Over the summer, the schedule changes to accommodate the tourists and part-time residents who vacation on the Eastern Shore. The weekend starts with a 4 p.m. Saturday Mass at St. John’s, followed by one at 5:30 at Sacred Heart. On Sunday, it’s Sacred Heart first, then back to St. John’s.
“It’s amazing, the crowds we get. Clearly, there’s a whole bunch of people who come in and hit that 10 o’clock on Sunday (at St. John’s),” Father Campbell said.
Sacred Heart was established in 1876, with the original church building constructed in 1878. St. John’s followed in 1890. The county had previously been served by Jesuit missionaries.
Kent County is largely rural and may have the retirees, but Washington College is only a few blocks away and adds another dimension to the parish. People from the college are involved at Sacred Heart, offering reflections on the Scriptures, for example, he said.
The county and Kent County, Del., to its southeast, are one of only five instances in the United States where bordering counties share the same name.
The college is one of the larger employers, but farming remains important, along with fishing and the Chester River Health System. Some residents commute to Washington or Baltimore for work, leaving before the sun comes up in the morning.
“That’s the cool thing. To see the different groups of people come together, it’s an exciting place to be,” Father Campbell said.
Breakfasts, bull roast
Each of the churches holds its own events, and two in particular stand out. At St. John’s, it’s the monthly breakfast, which costs only what people choose to give as a freewill offering. Sacred Heart’s big event is its bull roast, which will be held on Aug. 19. Father Campbell extended an invitation to those in the diocese who might otherwise not venture to the “other” Kent County.
“The meat’s cooking on the grill, and it starts at 4 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “It still is that whole country picnic mentality.”
Barth said the parish also has speakers and plenty of other activities. “It’s what I would call a good church home.”
Still, Father Campbell wanted to emphasize that the most important table at the parish is not of the picnic variety.
“We’re old, we’ve been around a while, but it continues to renew itself through the Eucharist,” he said. “Everything we do comes out of that table, so to speak.”