When the newly appointed bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa visited his future residence, one of the first things he checked out was the garage.
Father David Konderla didn't need extra room for a boat or an off-road vehicle or some other tie to the Heart of Texas ranch country that has long been his home. He needed room for his woodworking power tools.
The priest has crafted four crosiers -- the gracefully hooked shepherd's staff that symbolizes a bishop's pastoral work with his flock -- for bishops in Texas and New Mexico. He recently finished one for himself, preparing for the June 29 rites in Oklahoma in which he will be raised to the episcopate.
"I'm sure I don't know everything there is to know about Oklahoma, but it's a place that has a lot in common with Texas when it comes to how people see life," said Konderla, the second of 12 children, and the oldest son, in a Polish-Irish-German family in Bryan, Texas. The future bishop worked as a machinist for seven years after finishing high school, before entering seminary.
While people outside the Sunbelt think about Catholics in Texas, they think about the state's vibrant and growing Latino culture. That's appropriate, he said, but it's also important to remember the legacy of European immigrants in Central Texas from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Now those two historic streams of Catholic life are blending with Catholics from Africa, Asia, South America and around the world, as well as converts to the faith.
Bible Belt states like Texas and Oklahoma are changing, but much remains familiar, said Konderla. Today, they are nearly a million more Catholics in Texas than Southern Baptists. However, only 4 percent of Tulsa is Catholic.
"I expect to be working with many people who are really Catholics, but they just don't know it yet," he said. "We're talking about a part of America in which there's a lot of life and growth in Protestantism itself, as well as among Catholics. There are plenty of people here who are committed to the basics of the faith, but there are also lots of people in churches that have left behind some of the authoritative teachings of historic Christianity. … Some of the foundations are shifting down here."
It was not a surprise, for many insiders, when Konderla was selected as a bishop. He is, after all, the fourth priest from the thriving Diocese of Austin that the Vatican has raised to the episcopate since 2010. Also, Pope Francis has selected several former campus ministers as bishops.
Thus, it's significant that Tulsa's new bishop is the second leader of the giant St. Mary's Catholic Center across from Texas A&M University to be moved into the hierarchy, after Bishop Michael Sis of San Angelo, Texas. Catholic blogger Rocco Palmo has called this particular congregation in Bryan a "vocations factory," since it has regularly produced a dozen or so seminarians or members of religious orders a year.
Even more startling, considering wider American Catholic trends, is the fact that the parish offers Confession 10 times a week, as well as by appointment. The campus ministry has 50 full- and part-time staff members and standing-room only flocks in weekday Masses are not a surprise.
When Konderla carved and shaped his own crosier, he included wood from the Water Oak trees removed when the parish built a larger facility dedicated to student ministry. His episcopal ring -- crafted by his youngest brother -- includes gold from the wedding ring of his mother Ann, who died in 2012.
Whatever Sunbelt Catholics do in the future, he said, will have to be true to the church's teachings in the past.
"You have to have a foundation you can build on," said Konderla. "If everything is up for grabs, how do you live your life? There are things that are true, even if they are hard truths. …
"When some people hear those words -- 'hard truths' -- they think about truths that are hard and unyielding and constantly putting other things down. That isn't what people are looking for. They are looking for truths that are 'hard' in the sense that they are firm and can hold weight. They are truths you can build on."