Since his death on Friday, a steady stream of visitors from around the county have come to pay their respects at the site where Father Thom Turkey drew his last breath. According to unverified reports from congregants of Sacred Plume of our Blessed Virgin, the local parish will be petitioning the Vatican for Father Thom’s sainthood. Fr. Thom had a reputation as a miracle worker who ministered for many years within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of the Cumberland Valley in Middle Tennessee. Devotees of Fr. Thom are praying for his sainthood.
“There aren’t many who want this parish because it is a lot of work,” the 64-year-old priest was reported to have said in an interview with a local paper The Caruncle Chronicle, “but I just want to be an ordinary priest in a rural area. There isn’t much glory in loving the lowly.” Those are his words. His congregation doesn’t find him to be ordinary at all. When he was assigned 27 years ago to Sacred Plume, his first and only parish, the aging red-brick church was in poor condition, its flock dwindling.
Since then, the parish has grown into a refuge for agrarian Catholics. A standing- room-only crowd of believers gathers every Sunday to hear Fr. Thom’s homilies. The smell of burning cow pies replaces traditional incense, and a drum and paintings depicting Thanksgiving sacrifices stand side-by-side with the altar and crucifix.
“My approach is not to convert folks to Catholicism as much as it is to help them to be the best turkeys they can be,” Fr. Thom said. Birds flock here from all over the farm region to attend mass. Other parishioners have flown the coop from the Southern Baptist congregation, God’s Gobblers, and come to the Saturday evening mass. Some live nearby in one of the area’s poorest neighborhoods. Many were drug addicts, but quit cold turkey after their first visit to the church. “I think that is the beauty of the people down here,” Fr. Thom reported. “Although they may be poor, uneducated and suffering, they live in the real world. Not everyone can afford wattle insurance, but they can all afford the free love of Jesus.”
If the church was in bad shape when he got there, the rectory was even worse. That’s where he lived, however, with his three Yorkshire terriers: Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.
Parishioners like Mavis Mabry say he has touched their lives profoundly. “After I left the flock, I didn’t really go to church because all of the abuse scared me away,” she says. “I was negative and judgmental, but he changed my perspective on life and on God.” When doctors were not certain her 10-day-old granddaughter would survive Turkeypox, she remembers Father Thom coming to the hospital to baptize the chick. A decade later, the little hen runs to him for a hug every Sunday.
Thom Turkey was the sixth of eight born to Southern Baptist tobacco farmers in Wayne County, North Carolina. They were poor, “but we had a cow, chickens, pigs and a big garden,” he says. He credits his illiterate mother with great wisdom and understands that education and intelligence are not one in the same.
He was drawn to the Roman Catholic Church by a small group of nuns who ran a hospice for poor people who were dying of cancer. “You would think it would be a very morbid place, but amazingly it was very uplifting,” he reported. “I’ve been a Catholic ever since.”
After mass each week, Fr. Thom went around inside and outside the Church premises to pray and touch those who pressed him for healing. One by one, he touched the forefeathers of those in wheelchairs and made them stand, according to Penny Puckett, who had been clipped when a neighboring farmer tried to domesticate her. “I felt my pain going away and feathers growing when he prayed over me,” said Penny, 69, who stood up and walked around the church grounds after being touched by Fr. Thom. She then had her tired sister-in-law, who was assisting her, sit on her wheelchair. Fr. Thom was famous for encouraging the hard-working congregants to “sit for a spell.” He will be dearly missed.
Sacred Plume of our Blessed Virgin is awaiting Fr. Thom’s replacement. The Archdiocese plans on taking their time with choosing the appointment, but will talk turkey as soon as the shooting season closes.