Msgr. Ralph Beiting dies at age 88

Memorial Masses for founder of the Christian Appalachian Project are planned for Aug. 13 & 14

By Catholic News Service

ASHLAND, Ky. — Msgr. Ralph Beiting, who founded the Christian Appalachian Project in 1964 to serve the poor in central Appalachia, died Aug. 9 at age 88 at an Ashland hospital after a brief illness.

Msgr. Ralph Beiting, who founded the Christian Appalachian Project and helped nurture it into one of Kentucky’s largest charities, died Aug. 9 at King’s Daughters Medical Center in Ashland at age 88. He is pictured in a 2004 photo. (CNS photo/Larry Burgess)

Msgr. Beiting had been a priest of the Diocese of Lexington for 63 years.

“Our diocese and the communities of Appalachia have lost a truly exemplary priest,” said Lexington Bishop Ronald W. Gainer in a statement Aug. 10. “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.”

Visitation for the local community was scheduled for Aug. 11 at St. Jude Church in Louisa. Reception of the body, vespers and visitation was to be held Aug. 12 at Holy Family Church in Ashland.

Bishop Gainer was to be the celebrant of memorial Masses Aug. 13 at Holy Family and Aug. 14 at St. Joseph Church in Cold Spring.

“For more than 50 years, Rev. Beiting was a light in the darkness for untold thousands of Appalachian folks in need. He shared God’s love with everyone he met; every day he lived his life to serve, encourage, and lift up others. The extent of his impact cannot be measured,” said Guy Adams, the current president of the Christian Appalachian Project, in a statement Aug. 9.

Whenever he wasn’t in Appalachia at a Christian Appalachian Project site, Msgr. Beiting was frequently on the road raising funds to support it.

At its peak under his leadership, the Christian Appalachian Project had a staff of 300. In 2005. CAP, as it is known, raised $91.21 million in donations, ranking it 169th among all U.S. charities, according to a survey by the Council on Philanthropy. The figure was higher than funds raised for Father Flanagan’s Girls and Boys Town as well as most Catholic colleges and universities.

CAP, while founded by Msgr. Beiting, bills itself as an interdenominational, nonprofit Christian organization dedicated to providing for the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of the Appalachian people. In 1993 it received Outstanding Philanthropic Organization Award from the National Society of Fund-Raising Executives.

Originally assigned by his bishop in 1950 to a three-county area of eastern Kentucky the size of Rhode Island but with no church, no rectory and only eight known Catholics — “three of them children,” Msgr. Beiting said — the priest built 20 churches during his time there.

Msgr. Beiting took to street preaching early in his Appalachian ministry, hooking up loudspeakers to the back of a truck and preaching to anyone who would listen about the love of God; in a region of the country where Catholics are a miniscule minority, Msgr. Beiting said he stuck to more general topics. He told in 1996 of one of his favorite street-preaching encounters.

“We were preaching in Breathitt County in August. It was getting late in the afternoon, but I decided to stop at a place with about a half-dozen houses. We were there about 15 or 20 minutes, and I noticed a man in an old beat-up Chevy going back and forth. I guess he must have passed us six or seven times in the 20 minutes we were there,” Msgr. Beiting recalled in an interview a few years ago.

“When we finished, he came up and spoke. ‘You know, I need to thank you for coming here and preaching today. I was going out and shoot myself to get rid of all my problems.

“‘My wife left me. We got four children, and she took them all up to Dayton. Last weekend, I went to find them and I found the kids playing at an old place up there, and when I went into the house, my wife was in bed with another man. I thought maybe I’d kill that guy, but instead I ran all the way back here. I’ve been stewing, trying to figure out what to do, and today I decided that I’d commit suicide. That’s where I was going when I heard you’all preaching, and decided to stop and listen to what you had to say.'”

In 2004, the Marianist-run University of Dayton presented the priest, then 81, with an honorary doctorate of humane letters for his half-century of service in Appalachia.

“We aren’t here (in Appalachia) by accident,” he said on the university campus. “God sent us here to do his work and there is an untapped gold mine of young people who need to be challenged.”

He figured he had worked up to that time with more than 65,000 volunteers in some of Appalachia’s most impoverished sections. In 1991, CAP reported receiving an “unprecedented number of calls” from college groups offering to serve as volunteers. Of the 15 colleges that sent groups of volunteers during spring break, five took part for the first time.

He stepped down as CAP’s president in 1986 and from the board of directors in 1999. In 1991, Father Beiting established the St. Jude Mission Center, now under the umbrella of Catholic Charities of the Lexington Diocese of Lexington. It renamed the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center.

Msgr. Beiting was recognized by former Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton for his work in economic development. He also received several awards, including The Catholic University of America’s 1999 Alumnus Lifetime Service Award, and a 2001 honorary doctor of laws degree at St. Joseph’s College of Maine.

In 1990, Msgr. Beiting was one of 10 people be given a Caring Award by the Caring Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to public service. At that time, CAP was sponsoring 70 programs serving more than 45,000 people.

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