Renowned Appalachian missionary priest dies at age 88

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Father Ralph Beiting.

Father Ralph Beiting, who ministered to Catholics and others in need through the Christian Appalachian Project and other missionary initiatives, died Aug. 9 at age 88 following a brief illness.

Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Lexington praised Fr. Beiting as “a truly exemplary priest,” in a statement mourning his death.

“His delight in the work he did, his love for the people he served and his passion for helping anyone in need never waned throughout his 63 years of ministry,” Bishop Gainer said.

“May our merciful Lord now grant him the eternal joy and rest he so richly deserves.”

A Kentucky native, and the oldest of Ralph and Martha Beiting's 11 children, Fr. Beiting was ordained a priest in 1949. He was tasked with seeking out Catholics and constructing churches in parts of Kentucky that did not yet have a Catholic church.

“On October 7, 1950,” he later recalled, “I found myself in Appalachia, pastor of a non-existent church in a parish the size of the state of Rhode Island.”

“I thought to myself, ‘This has got to be some mistake.’ If it was, it was the happiest mistake of my life.”

To extend his ministry to all people of the region, the priest founded a network of Bible schools, clothing stores, and emergency services that became known as the Christian Appalachian Project. He served on its board of directors until 1999.

The priest envisioned the group as one that “would roll up our sleeves and get the job done.” Today, it is the 15th largest human service organization in the U.S., and the largest in eastern Kentucky.

During the 1990s, Fr. Beiting also established the St. Jude Mission Center. It has since been renamed the “Father Beiting Appalacian Mission Center,” and is now part of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Lexington.

In over a half-century of ministry, the priest built the first Catholic churches in 10 parts of eastern Kentucky, while making contributions to the building of six others. Blessed John Paul II gave him the title of “Reverend Monsignor,” naming him an honorary prelate of the pontifical household.

Bishop Gainer celebrated Fr. Beiting's funeral Mass on Aug. 13 at Holy Family Church in Ashland, where a collection was taken to benefit the mission center that now bears his name.

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