Monsignor Ralph W. Beiting, a Roman Catholic priest who started the Christian Appalachian Project and helped nurture it into one of the state's largest charities, died early Thursday.
Monsignor Beiting, 88, had been treated for heart blockages and hospitalized at times in recent weeks, and he died at King's Daughters Medical Center in Ashland at 1:20 a.m. Thursday, said Dominic Capria, director of operations at the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center in Louisa.
Friends and acquaintances said Monsignor Beiting's work in poverty relief and as a minister had touched countless lives in Eastern Kentucky over more than six decades.
"He was a light in the darkness for thousands of Appalachian folks in need," said Guy Adams, president and CEO of the Christian Appalachian Project.
Monsignor Beiting, who grew up in a large Catholic family in Newport, was in seminary when he first went to Eastern Kentucky on a mission trip in the mid-1940s. He was assigned to work in the area beginning in 1950.
Monsignor Beiting said he saw a great need to minister to the physical as well as the spiritual needs of people in the region, one of the poorest in the nation in 1964 when he founded the non-profit, ecumenical Christian Appalachian Project, or CAP.
"You couldn't just tell some man to pray and have faith when he didn't have a place to sleep or a bucket of coal to burn to keep his family warm. You had to do more," Monsignor Beiting told the Herald-Leader in a 1985 interview.
CAP has a wide range of programs in Eastern Kentucky, ranging from providing food and clothing to repairing homes and operating domestic violence shelters.
More than 36,000 people in 30 Kentucky counties received services or attended CAP meetings in fiscal year 2011, Adams said.
The organization also operates a program throughout all 13 Appalachian states to distribute goods donated by businesses.
The Christian Appalachian Project is the state's largest charity, as measured by philanthropic impact, Adams said.
Monsignor Beiting left the CAP board in 1999. He had started a mission in Louisa in 1991 that was later named for him, and he remained as its chief consultant.
Monsignor Beiting also helped other charities find buildings and raise money and pushed to start the Mountain Christian Academy in Floyd County.
Friends said Monsignor Beiting could inspire people to do things they hadn't thought to do, or didn't think they could do.
"He was able to see gifts in people that they didn't see themselves," said Sister Kathleen Weigand, head of the St. Vincent Mission in Floyd County.
Monsignor Beiting started working in Eastern Kentucky at a time when Roman Catholics were scarce in the region. He often preached on the street to spread the word.
He built the first Roman Catholic churches in 10 Eastern Kentucky counties, acquired financing for six more and pastored several, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington.
"Our diocese and the communities of Appalachia have lost a truly exemplary priest," said Bishop Ronald W. Gainer, head of the diocese. "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."
Capria said that even at 88, Monsignor Beiting got up early each day, celebrated Mass at St. Jude Church in Louisa at 7 a.m. and then worked many days until 10 p.m. or later on various projects, including raising money.
When Capria visited Monsignor Beiting in the hospital last weekend, the priest said he needed to get out so he could meet with volunteers who had come to the Louisa mission for service projects, Capria said.
"There was no holding him down," Capria said. "That's all he ever cared about — helping somebody."
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1