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Kentucky by Heart: Father Ralph Beiting’s impact extends far beyond the organization he founded

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared at KyForward March 27, 2018

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

I do a lot of reading — and often write about — Kentuckians who’ve made a positive difference for our state. One person who I believe often gets overlooked is Catholic priest Father Ralph Beiting, who died at age 88 in 2012. He’s perhaps most easily recognized as the founder, in 1962, of the noted Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), called a “nonprofit, nondenominational organization to help the poor help themselves.” Though known in that special organization and the Catholic Church in the state, I’m not sure that he gets his just due outside those realms.

I doubt if that’s the kind of thing that ever bothered him; I support the idea that he deserves more, however, so I’ll write about him.

Besides the importance of CAP, I find his entire life story highly fascinating. I realized that recently as I perused sources such as The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky and Wikipedia and talked to some people who knew him. For me, he’s certainly a “person of interest” when seeking to understand the rich fabric of the Bluegrass state. During his years on earth, he showed up in different places in Kentucky, always with a “roll up my sleeves and get to work” mentality that he hoped would invigorate those he helped to be empowered. He had a humble influence, and a lasting one.

Father Beiting (Photo from Christian Appalachian Project)

Beiting was the oldest of eleven children born to Ralph and Martha Beiting in northern Kentucky during the Great Depression. He attended St. Joseph School in Cold Spring as a child and later Newport Catholic High School. Later, while attending St. Gregory Seminary in Cincinnati, he spent the summer of 1946 in Paintsville, in eastern Kentucky, doing mission work. That experience turned out to be a forerunner of his future life working with economically challenged people in Appalachia.

He was ordained in 1949 and stayed in northern Kentucky as associate pastor at St. Bernard Catholic Church, in Dayton. A year later, Father Beiting was assigned to start a Catholic church in the Madison County town of Berea. But, according to the Encyclopedia, the “declining coal-mining industry, enduring poverty, and pervasive anti-Catholicism made the assignment a difficult undertaking.”

Though not easy, Beiting embraced the opportunity and built an effective mission center in Berea. Then, in 1951, he established St. Clare Catholic Church there. He relied on his many contacts back in northern Kentucky to supply food, clothing, and household goods for the mission.

Several years later, in 1957, he partnered with his associate pastor, Father Herman Kamlage, in founding Cliffview Lodge, a summer boys’ camp located on some land at Herrington Lake in Garrard County. The two used their own money to do so, and the outreach was racially integrated—unusual during the period. Cliffview, according to Wikipedia, “offered recreation and fellowship in a Christian atmosphere to boys from poor families in the counties where Father Beiting ministered…(and was) a success.”

The plan Father Beiting had for CAP when incorporated in 1964 was that the organization should maintain its independence (religious ideals) and rely on private donations rather than federal funding. It “would focus on creating opportunities for people in the region to start self-sustaining businesses that would provide a living for the owners and workers,” noted the Encyclopedia. Along with those stated goals for CAP, he also sought to make available educational services for all ages, and have summer camps and Bible schools. It would foster family growth, if possible.

Today, a key part of CAP’s success is the spirit of volunteering, inspired by Father Beiting’s servant leadership demonstrated in the early days of the organization. People of all faiths and from all parts of the country provide labor, as well as donations, either “in kind” or directly financial. A quick look at CAP’s web site, www.christianapp.org, makes clear that through the instruments of faith, service, and compassion: “We are building hope, transforming lives, and sharing Christ’s love through service in Appalachia.”

Even in his death, Father Ralph Beiting’s legacy is made apparent through the thousands of people CAP touches every day.

Amazingly, Beiting managed to juggle other endeavors while involved with CAP. He served as pastor of parishes in Garrard, Rockcastle, Jackson, and Madison counties until 1981. In 1973, he was involved in a five-year effort to restore Camp Nelson, (supported by CAP), though a fire and weather catastrophes put a stop to the effort, and resources were needed elsewhere. He spent his later years as a pastor (after CAP involvement) much further east, in Louisa, at St Jude Parish, a church he helped start in 1992.

(Photo from Christian Appalachian Project)

Father Beiting also is remembered as a “street preacher;” Encyclopedia noted that he “brought his street preaching to parishes in northern Kentucky by cruising the Ohio River in a houseboat and making stops along the way on both sides of the river to preach to people who gathered to listen.”

Sandra Koenig, raised in Ft. Thomas but now living in Montgomery, Ohio, recalls a special time as a youth when she was a middle schooler at St. Thomas School: “Father Beiting came to our church to ask for help and donations for the work he was doing in Appalachia,” she explained. “I remember sitting on the pew listening to every word. This was the very first time that my eyes were opened to poverty. I thought, up to then, that everyone lived like I did. He had a way of telling his stories that took (you) right to the area and people he was talking about.”

A family connection to Father Beiting brings these insights to his character. A niece, Donna Beiting Hicks, Cold Spring, shared her remembrances:

“The people of Appalachia were not his ‘job’ or his ‘clients,’ she said. “They were his heart and his soul. It was what he did and who he was. This assignment was not something he was initially thrilled with. But it took very little time to realize those mountains were exactly where he was supposed to be.”

Donna told a few light-hearted stories about her uncle. “’Father Bill’, which is what we all grew up calling him, married my husband and me,” she said. “At our wedding, his homily was 23 minutes long. This was a Catholic mass on a hot July 1 day. Nearly fifteen minutes of his homily he somehow wound back to the people of Appalachia and his mission there. We knew that would probably happen, which is why we timed it just for our curiosity.”

There were two requests Father Beiting made for his funeral, related Donna. One was that his casket be a simple one, not flashy. That was taken care of easily by a family member who made one earlier.

“His other request,” she said, “which my dad had a really hard time with as executor, was that there would be a collection (for Appalachia) during the funeral mass. Everyone, including many of the priests that were there, dug into their pockets. Father Bill would have been thrilled, and was probably giggling up in heaven. He was awesome. Just a genuinely caring guy who would have given the shirt off his back to someone in need.”

I wish I’d had a chance to sit down over a cup of coffee with this man.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s latest, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was recently released. Steve serves as a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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One Comment

  1. Pam Gongola says:

    I met Father Beiting when I was a child. I think he was related to one of our neighbors. Years later I heard him speak and his love for Appalachia was very evident. He was a wonderful example of what we all are on our best days, Christ for one another. What a tremendous human being. Your article is a beautiful tribute to someone who truly made the most of his life.

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