The Winfrees first met Father Ralph Beiting in 1992, when Pharian was out of work and their house in Martin County, Ky., almost burned down. Pharian and Marie and their three sons didn't know where to turn. And then Father Beiting arrived with a cool compress for their fevered lives. He brought not only nails and know-how to rebuild their house—he helped them reconstruct their hope in life. "His spirituality gives him a glow," says Pharian, now 40, whom Beiting hired as a handyman. "The sun is shining on Father all the time, and it just shines through him brilliantly."

Beiting, 76, is regarded as a resident angel in the rugged mountain country known as Appalachia. A parish priest in three small towns, he is also the founder of the Christian Appalachian Project, a nonprofit organization with an annual budget of more than $75 million and a kaleidoscope of 70-odd programs in such areas as adult education and job training, home repair and emergency relief, health advocacy and child development; 73 percent of last year's budget paid for building materials, books and other goods distributed to 1,281 churches and community-based projects in 13 states from New York to Mississippi. "Father Beiting has a magnetism I have not encountered in too many other people," says Rev. Milton Bartram, a Methodist minister from West Virginia, who sheepishly admits, "When I was growing up, I thought Catholics were all bound for hell."

When Beiting arrived in overwhelmingly Baptist eastern Kentucky 50 years ago, the majority there felt that way. "I was cussed at, shot at, had tomatoes thrown at me, and [was] arrested," he remembers. Once he was confronted by a burly youth swinging a chain. "He said he was going to hit me in the head with it," recalls Beiting. "I told him, 'In the name of God, will you put that down?' and to my great amazement, he did."

The anti-Catholic hostility was open and intense. While street preaching in isolated Leslie County one day, Beiting needed an electrical outlet for an amplifier and asked a man sitting on his porch if he could tap into his. When the man refused, Beiting said, "If I requested a cup of water in the name of Jesus, would you give it to me?" When the man said yes, the priest said, "What I'm asking is the same—I'm asking for a plug full of electricity, in the name of Jesus." The man puzzled over this, then relented, declaring, "If you say one Catholic thing out there, I'll pull out your plug." After listening to Beiting preach, the man cried and offered lifelong access to his outlet.

Instead of turning tail and going home, the young clergyman dug in. Beiting put up a sign on the sad-sack building the bishop had given him—there was not even yet a proper church or rectory, just an old house with a collapsed porch—declaring mass would take place on Sunday. When curious locals stopped to chat, he started to get a sense of how they lived: "People said they were poor and didn't have enough to eat or enough [money] for clothing or enough to pay the electric bill." Upon visiting their homes, he says, he discovered conditions to be "even worse than they were telling me."

Beiting began going back to his own hometown of Newport, Ky., driving 135 miles each way, to scrounge food, clothing and money from friends and relatives. The people he knew reached out to people they knew, and soon Beiting was regularly hauling a carload from Newport to the town of Berea, Ky. "First thing you know," he says, "I'm getting a little group of poor people who are spreading the word: 'This guy helps people.' "

Beiting had known poverty himself, if not on the scale he encountered in Appalachia. The oldest of 11 children of Theodore, a carpenter, and Martha, a homemaker, Beiting was raised in the depths of the Depression, an upbringing he calls a blessing. "You learned that in a time of challenge you didn't give up," he explains. "You tried to do something for yourself and others."

For Beiting the path to God was marked by events that linger as parables. He remembers the time he got $5 from an aunt and was set to buy a baseball glove, until his father suggested he give it to the hospital where his mother had just delivered her eighth child. "It was the finest $5 I ever spent," Beiting says of the lesson he got in responsibility. He recalls another time, after a flood, when his father took him down to the high school to work on repairing warped floors—for free. And the time his grandfather asked about a molding the young man had replaced behind the church altar. "Nobody goes back there," Beiting replied. "Who's going to see it?" And his grandfather answered, "You've seen it, I've seen it, God's seen it—how many more do you want?"

In 1941 Beiting entered St. Gregory Seminary, near Cincinnati, where he stayed for four years. He subsequently studied at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and in 1949 was ordained a priest. A year later he landed back in Kentucky, where he was given a parish about the size of Rhode Island.

In 1957, after years of trucking in necessities, Beiting started opening camps for poor kids. The first—there are three today—was Cliffview Lodge, 1¼ acres near a lake, purchased for $2,500. The 12 kids who attended that first year slept in a tent. No matter. The two-week session offered swimming, softball and archery—and a strong dose of hope and possibility.

"The camp opened up the door to the families," says Beiting. Soon he and his posse of 28 volunteers were asking the kids' parents about their wants and needs. "When they spoke of needing repairs for their houses, we started doing that," says Beiting. "When they voiced concern that there were elderly with no one to visit, we started doing that." Working through Christian Appalachian Project, Beiting got some cows and set up a dairy, then started a sawmill, which led to a wood shop, a greenhouse and a wreath-making business. Soon CAP began buying businesses and reselling them at low cost to people in need, giving them zero-interest loans. The idea was to set people free. "We looked at ourselves not as saviors but as enablers," Beiting says. "Possession is what really motivates people."

On a recent afternoon Beiting was talking with Ella Louise Farley, 56, who lives in a trailer with her two disabled sons, Steven, 32, and Donnie, 28. The priest assured them that a volunteer would be out in three days to help with repairs on their water pump and flooring.

"You guys aren't angels, are you?" asked Steven. "I heard that angels help people sometimes."

They surely do.

William Plummer
Barbara Sandler in eastern Kentucky

  • Contributors:
  • Barbara Sandler.