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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Little Publisher on the Prairie

by Tim Drake


Tim Drake offers an overview of the history, structure, and spirituality of Bethlehem Books, the unconventional Catholic publisher of children's literature based in Bathgate, North Dakota. Bethlehem Community made the decision to embrace poverty and weakness and has been blessed for it — overcoming their trials, moves, loss of members, religious conversion, and business transition.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report


28 – 31

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, February 2007

When callers place their telephone calls to San Francisco-based Ignatius Press to make their orders, little do many realize that the phone is picked up by a private association of the faithful set amidst the prairies of the northernmost reaches of North Dakota. Ignatius out-sources its order-taking to Bethlehem Community in Bathgate, North Dakota — just 12 miles south of the Canadian border.

"We're off the beaten path," says Jim Rasmussen, a member of the community who is busy taking orders on the telephone. "We're not on the way to anywhere, unless you're headed to Winnipeg."

Off the beaten path is an appropriate description for this unconventional Catholic publisher of children's literature. Not only are they off the beaten path geographically, but their distinct community is also off-the-beaten path in terms of its history, structure, and spirituality.

It's 9:20 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Four men and four women are gathered around a table in Bethlehem's adult library for a business meeting. It's only fitting that they should be surrounded by so many good books, including old Missals and books by G.K. Chesterton, Romano Guardini, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Pope John Paul II, and many others. They're sharing marketing ideas for Bethlehem Books' approximately 80 titles.

Karen Givand suggests sending review copies to school districts for possible consideration. Publisher Jack Sharpe discusses efforts to update the publisher's web site, perhaps featuring an animated character who can lead visitors on a tour.

Sneaking glances at the phone mounted in the corner on the wall to see how many of Ignatius' lines are ringing, Jim Rasmussen reminds the group of the importance of the web site. "We get more orders from the web than call-ins," says Rasmussen.

With a Glory Be . . ., the meeting comes to an end and everyone moves off to his respective office to help those answering the four telephone order lines and carry out the business of publishing.

In a bright art room at the end of the building, Jack's daughter Roseanne, and son Peter, who is on break from his seminary studies at Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Md., look over cover artwork for an upcoming book. Self-taught artist, Roseanne, a consecrated virgin within the community, has done the cover art for six of Bethlehem's book covers, as well as the community's 2006 Christmas card. It features a beautiful painting of the Nativity with the words "Come to Bethlehem and See . . ."

From time to time, Jack Sharpe is interrupted for direction on a given project. Kirk Rasmussen asks for direction regarding an oak bench Jack has asked him to work on. Gabriel Carlson takes a moment to show Jack a poster he's creating.

Bethlehem's Birth

The community has come a long way in its 36-year history. The now-Catholic private association of the Christian faithful, known formally as The Spirit and Bride Say, "Come!" (SBSC), started out neither as Catholics nor as publishers. In fact, when they were originally founded in 1971 in the Portland, Ore. / Vancouver, Wash. area, they were a part of a young adult ministry affiliated with the American Baptist Church.

"We were a group of middle class Christians who, choosing to live a life of faith, found ourselves getting poorer and poorer and poorer," Sharpe said.

Bob and Louise Carlson and their daughter Jean Ann, Lydia Reynolds and Alicia McMillin were all involved in the early years of the outreach experiment sponsored by their small Baptist church, called House Ministries. Jack Sharpe (who would later marry Jean Ann) was living in a similar, nearby Lutheran ministry house. The early members of House Ministries worked outside jobs and eventually began pooling their resources. At its high point, around 1977, there were 80 people living in the community, split up among various houses. In 1981, when the community gave up all of their private possessions, the group's membership declined.

Today, Bethlehem Community has approximately 21 members who live communally, with other families and individuals relating in various ways through the SBSC.

In 1984, the community parted from Bethlehem Baptist church, from which they had taken their name, and formed their own non-profit entity. Soon after this, the members gradually stopped working outside jobs in order to work together as a community. Their first undertaking was operating a Scandinavian bakery and, for a short time, a deli-restaurant near the Portland State University Campus.

Born Again?

For nearly ten years they functioned as their own church. They had their own outreach. Jack often found himself reluctantly hearing confessions, of a sort, and they had their own version of a communion service every Sunday, using bread and grape juice.

When the community first began looking into the Catholic faith, a priest pointed out to them that without a priest, they were just pretending. His comment caused some serious reflection that later led to the community abandoning communion until they became Catholic.

"He was saying that we had a theology of the Real Presence, but we didn't have the means of really dealing with it on an honest level."

"For years we had watched things happen with other communities — immorality, leadership problems — and we knew that we needed to find something to belong to that was greater than ourselves. Up till this time we just hadn't realized that there was only one thing big enough — the Catholic Church," said Sharpe.

Over a period of time in the 1980s, various members had begun to express interest in the claims of the Catholic Church. Jack had done Master's-level work on the early Church Fathers, Jim Rasmussen had spent a year in France at the Catholic community of L'Arche, Alicia McMillin, Lydia Reynolds and others had felt drawn to a more liturgical form of worship. As a community they had also received nurture and encouragement from the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. All of this culminated in 1992, when they approached Vietnamese-American priest Father Anthony Ton, pastor of the local parish, expressing their desire to enter the Catholic Church.

"At first, he didn't know what to do with us," said Jack. "There were 15 of us and our children."

In response, Father Ton created a special RCIA group for the community members, and, collectively, they took instruction.

"We had spent a year working on the doctrinal things," said Sharpe. "What we needed to learn more than anything were the cultural aspects — how to genuflect, when to kneel."

They began attending Mass and taking notes. "It was impossible for us," said Sharpe. "We would compare notes and some would kneel or bow at one part, and others wouldn't."

Sharpe said they were saved by attending sacrament preparation classes that were offered for their children. "We went to the children's classes and learned how to make the sign of the cross and how to be culturally Catholic."

Nearly all of the community's members were received into the Church on Easter 1993. Along with their new life in the Church, came new life in their outreach ministry.

New Life

After their conversion, the Holy Spirit breathed new life into Bethlehem Community. A series of incidents came together that would forever change the focus of the community's work. This included the realization that quality children's literature was becoming scarce, an unexpected inheritance, the donation of key equipment, the advent of desktop publishing, and the support of a major Catholic book publisher.

At the same time as the community was preparing to join the Church, Father Ton donated a tool to the community that would radically change their lives — an old printing press.

"My mom said it would be nice to do flyers for the bakery," said Peter Sharpe. "She also spoke of a children's magazine or children's books." Although the bakery business was successful, the work was labor intensive and failed to motivate the children. The community felt that reprinting good books for children would line up with the community's growing sense that their charism had to do with "the child," with God's strength in weakness as best expressed in the Child of Bethlehem.

Peter explained how the book market had changed in the 1970s. "A lot of good children's books were published over the past 100 years," said Peter. "But my mother would go to the library and find that these were the books that were being discarded. It was getting harder and harder to find good children's literature."

After doing some preliminary explorations, the community realized that desktop publishing had gotten to the point where you could typeset your own books, so with a computer loaned to the community by Father Ton, Peter taught himself how to use the program. As a high school home school project he began typesetting Bethlehem's first book — Rolf and the Viking Bow. In November 1993, Bethlehem published 3,000 copies.

"It was professional but unattractive," said Peter. "We sold a few."

When a community member received an unexpected inheritance, the community used the money to purchase computer equipment. And the serious search for books to publish and for the addresses of living authors or their heirs began.

"Many of these books haven't been in print for 30 or more years and the authors have long dropped out of sight," said Peter. "When we found Hilda von Stockum that was a big hit."

The community sold their building in order to publish their next book, Hilda von Stockum's A Day on Skates. They also published Laura Berquist's first book edition of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum.

Ignatius Press has helped Bethlehem Community in more ways than one. "Father Joseph Fessio had told us that it would take us 15 years before we would make a profit," said Jack. "He liked our bakery goods and thought we should stick to baking, but he was still willing to give support to our undertaking when we really needed it."

After the initial inheritance had run out, Ignatius Press came to the rescue by offering the community their retail phone order-taking. A year later, they suggested a partnership between Ignatius Press and Bethlehem Books, investing much needed capital to help the fledging company to increase their list of titles.

Since both serve different markets, the two publishing houses see their work as complementary. Bethlehem Books exclusively publishes children's literature that sells to non-Christians, Catholics or Protestants. Among their biggest customers are home schooling parents looking for quality books for their children to read.

"We wouldn't be in business if it weren't for home schoolers," admitted Peter. "Most of the books are from authors who have a Christian worldview," said Peter. "They offer a hope-filled look on life. Since a child won't be reading these books forever, it's important that he read books while he is young where good triumphs."

Once Bethlehem had half a dozen titles, Ignatius began carrying the books in their catalog. "They gave us imprint recognition," said Peter. "It gave us a seal of approval."

The arrangement means that 8.5 hours per day, members of Bethlehem Community answer Ignatius' 1-800 number (four lines) taking credit card retail orders. That amounts to about 12,000 minutes on the telephone per month, 30,000 minutes between November and Christmas.

The income derived from answering Ignatius' order lines provides the main financial revenue for the community.

"It's why we can keep doing Bethlehem Books the way we are doing it," admitted Jack.

At present, Bethlehem publishes approximately 8-10 new titles per year. The titles range from historical fiction to adventure stories. Like other Catholic publishers, such as Sophia Institute Press, Zaccheus Press, and IHS Press, Bethlehem publishes few living authors. Unlike most presses, they offer a courtesy royalty to living authors whose books are in the public domain.

Through the invitation of the late Fargo Bishop James Sullivan, the community moved, after the sale of their building in Vancouver, to Warsaw, North Dakota in February 1995. They occupied a former convent that now serves women who find themselves in crisis pregnancies. Four years later, they moved to their present location in Bathgate.

Born of Weakness

Located in the center of the former state school for the blind, that is now the home of the community, is the Blessed Sacrament in Bethlehem's beautiful chapel. In the rear of the chapel stands a statue of Mary, visibly broken and repaired around her middle.

As Jack tells the story, the statue was being shipped to the U.S. from Europe. During unloading, a baggage handler tossed another package onto the statue, breaking it into over 140 different pieces. It's been meticulously repaired, but the cracks around the Virgin's womb are still evident. Affectionately called "Our Lady of Brokenness" by the community's members, the statue is symbolic for the association's work, communal life, and spirituality.

At the center of the association's spirituality is the idea of embracing weakness and being a fool for Christ. Jack Sharpe cites 1 Corinthians 2 — where Paul says "the Lord has chosen the foolish to confound the wise . . . what is weak in the world to shame the strong . . . what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not to bring to nothing things that are" — to explain the community's spirituality.

"When we try to offer each other our strengths, we just oppress each other," explained Sharpe. "As Evangelical Protestants we were going that way. Now we've adopted a total non-performance lifestyle."

Bethlehem's name hearkens to the Christ child, born poor and weak in a stable. "Not all people have the experience of success," said Father Jason Lefor, chaplain for the community. "The great hope is that every human being has the experience and ability of failure. Christ came to heal the sick, not the well. Every one of us has the capacity to relate to the cross."

"We found room in the Catholic Church because we fail," added Jack.

Father Lefor knows exactly what Sharpe is talking about. Prior to his involvement with the community, the young priest said that he was ready to "implode."

"I thought that going where my people were — sporting events, ball games — would bring them to the Church, but it didn't," said Father Lefor. "I would have five to eight people per year coming for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and afterwards they would disappear."

"It was as if I was blessing them where they were at and saying there was no need for change," he continued. "It exhausted me."

"The bishop told me I was living off my own personality," concluded Father Lefor.

So, Father Lefor stepped back. He no longer attends the ball games. Instead, in addition to his parish work, he serves as chaplain to the Bethlehem Community and is a co-founder of the Spirit and the Bride say, "Come" Association of the Christian Faithful, of which the community is now a part.

The sacraments come to the community through the parish, explained Father Lefor. Community members attend Mass at St. Brigid of Ireland in Cavalier. Still, on most Mondays, Father Lefor celebrates Mass for those at Bethlehem. He also shares occasional meals with them, and once or twice a week he spends time at his Poustinia (desert) — a small, one-room pine cabin, complete with altar, located on the outskirts of Bethlehem's property — for personal prayer and reflection.

"Doing so has made a doorway for the Spirit to come into the parishes," said Father Lefor. "The community exists for the renewal of the parish and the priesthood."

Jack says that the fruit of Father Lefor's involvement is clear. "We couldn't do what we're doing without Father Lefor," said Sharpe. "Since his involvement, the association's cooperatives have happened."

Sharpe is referring to the association's structural makeup. Structurally, the work of the association includes a number of cooperative initiatives, including the community circle with its Bethlehem Books apostolate and the Holy Child Production Cooperative, which is a nascent economic cooperative.

The cooperatives serve as one way for those who are not a formal part of the community to be involved in the community's work. Mark and Sheila Vandal, for example, are not formal members, but have found a way to be involved. Mark assists with construction tasks at Bethlehem a couple days each week.

Future Life

In addition to children's literature, the community is also branching out into new ventures, including publishing a religious education curriculum. For the past several years, Bethlehem has been working on their Holy Child Curriculum.

"So much of the curriculum we've seen doesn't make the necessary connections between the liturgy, doctrine, the Bible, and life," said Jack. "We are hoping to produce something that will be edifying and instructive for the teacher as well as for the child."

Since the Diocese of Fargo is one of a growing number of dioceses that use the restored order of the sacraments, moving the Sacrament of Confirmation to a younger age, Bishop Samuel Aquila encouraged the community to begin their curriculum publishing with the third grade level.

The result is a tactile, Montessori-like approach that makes use of manipulatives such as miniature vessels to teach about the Mass.

Originally, they were going to create a curriculum without a textbook, but after a discussion with the Office of the Catechism, they learned that to obtain the bishops' approval, they needed to include a student textbook.

In 2005, the community pilot-tested the curriculum in local parishes. "We've created something that can be used by a CCD teacher, a home school teacher, or a Catholic school religion teacher," explained Roseanne. "It can be used across all three platforms."

The program is one that both children and adults have gotten excited about. In fact, at the end of the trial, many of the teachers didn't want to give the curriculum back.

Bethlehem has formed a friendly association with England's renowned Maryvale Institute — which offers distance education and training in catechetics, theology and evangelization — and has benefited greatly from their encouragement and professional advice. The Holy Child Curriculum, once again a joint venture between Bethlehem Books and Ignatius Press, will be produced in a cooperative relationship with St. Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community in New Hope, Kentucky, longtime catechetical advocates in their printing and publishing apostolate.

Bethlehem hopes to make the third grade curriculum available for purchase in the fall of 2008. Next, the community will begin working on the second grade and other elementary curriculums. They are hopeful that the venture will not only strengthen children's, and their parents', knowledge of the faith, but may also help the publisher to turn a profit to help fund their other cooperative endeavors.

Lydia Reynolds, one of the community's founders, recalled the comments shared by a parent following a retreat given at the end of the year as part of the curriculum. "Parents came up and said, 'Wow, I felt like this retreat was for me,'" said Reynolds. "We know we have something good here. We just need to export it."

One of the community's earliest decisions — to embrace poverty and weakness — has sustained them through their trials, moves, loss of members, religious conversion, and business transition. It's also reaped big dividends.

Unlike other apostolates and publishers, Bethlehem does no fundraising. "If it's the Lord's program, he'll provide for us," said Jack.

And in countless ways He has — from providing a printing press, computer equipment, and property to providing a source of income and marketing for their titles. Bethlehem has indeed found strength in weakness.

[Contact information: Bethlehem Books,, 1(800)757-6831, 10194 Garfield Street, S. Bathgate, ND 58216]

Tim Drake serves as senior writer with the National Catholic Register and Faith and Family Magazine. He writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.

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