Parishioners credit pastor for church's growth (Video)
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LOCATION: 17 Church St., Inez
A hum of children's laughter, clinking beer bottles and polka music filled the Inez Community Center on Sunday, as the Rev. Gabriel Bentil mingled with parishioners.
The Ghanian priest could hardly take two steps without smiling or exchanging niceties with someone at the St. Joseph Catholic Church annual church picnic, which this year celebrated its 140th anniversary.
"Thank you, Father."
"Good to see you, Father," the congregants said, weaving through a tight crowd.
Bentil waited for the auctioneer to announce the last item over the loudspeaker - his homemade Amaretto pound cake. The priest's cake is traditionally the last item on the church picnic's roster to be auctioned off to the church.
"I didn't make it by myself, but I think it turned out good. I'm a good cook," said Bentil, pronouncing "Amaretto" with an appropriate Italian cadence.
For more than a century, the St. Joseph church picnic has been a special tradition in Inez. And each year, the event grows and expands, attracting more families to the picnic and the church itself.
But this year, the church picnic funds are being used to pay off the church's recent renovation project, including adding another 200 seats to the existing 200-seat sanctuary.
And while some might attribute the church's rapid growth to an increase in oil-field workers relocating to the area, St. Joseph members are in agreement - Bentil is the reason the church is growing.
"He's so friendly, and he appreciates everyone," said Ben McCord, 82, who has been attending St. Joseph's since 1955. "In my book, he's my No. 1 priest. And I've been around priests since I was an altar boy."
McCord's wife, Doris McCord, has attended St. Joseph since birth and the church picnic about as many years. She's seen her beloved church picnic grow through the years, even outgrowing several locations before the event moved to the Inez Community Center about 10 years ago.
But in all the years she's attended the church picnic, she said the church body growth is absolutely a result of Bentil's ministerial leadership.
"We don't just think Father is the reason it's growing. We know he is," said Doris McCord, 82.
Church picnic co-chairman John Weitz, 39, said he, too, has been a part of the St. Joseph family his entire life.
After so many years of attending St. Joseph and the annual picnic with the same people, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation picnic volunteers, Weitz said, his church family and the small community of Inez feels like second family.
"This event brings the church family together, and it makes you feel like you're part of something bigger," Weitz said.
And while he was already loyal to people of St. Joseph, Weitz said, when Bentil joined the church five years ago, the church family seemed complete.
"He's definitely grown our membership. People love him. He's very charismatic," Weitz said.
Bentil doesn't seem convinced he's the reason for the church picnic's growth or the expansion at the church, pointing out that people are more likely attending the picnic to eat the Crossroads' best seasoning-injected fried chicken and homemade pies.
But he said he's doing his best to serve God and the people of "beautiful Inez."
And he invites anyone who has never attended the 140-year-old St. Joseph Church picnic to join the fun next year for what is traditionally considered one of the church's most exciting and entertaining days of the year.
"It really is a beautiful community," Bentil said. "Everybody knows everybody. Everyone is connected - that is why it feels like family."