Read: Cottonwood Farm | Building Faith, Fraternity & Family Life

They are a group of young Catholics who have intentionally chosen to live in community in order to foster their faith, fraternity and family life. Now, the residents of Cottonwood Farm near Ann Arbor have unveiled ambitious plans to erect a chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph on their land.

“If we really want to have Catholic community, if we really want to live together and be able to pray together, then having a chapel is going to be huge,” says Inshal Chenet, a married father of four who helped establish the community at Cottonwood four years ago along with his wife, Monica.

Born in Bedford, Texas, 29-year-old Inshal Chenet has lived in 18 different places around the globe by dint of having a father who served in the U.S. Air Force. After graduating from Wyoming Catholic College, Inshal and a few other graduates desired to apply many of their late-night college discussions about authentic Christian living to the real world.

“About four or five years ago, a good Catholic friend of mine suggested that you don't have real community if you can't just pop by a neighbor’s home and borrow a stick of butter — and that kind of struck me,” recalls Inshal.

“We live in a contemporary society which often can be atomized and rootless, where we have to drive distances to intentionally foster our faith, our family or our friendships — for example, you don't pop by someone's house with your children but, instead, you have to plan a ‘play date’ beforehand and rely on the car to make it happen.

“So, my thought was: ‘What if I got a property that had enough houses on it that a group of people — single Catholics, young families and the like — could all live within close proximity?’”

The result is Cottonwood Farm, a five-acre parcel of land in Webster Township just north of Ann Arbor. The farm’s domestic dwellings date back as far as the 1820s. In total, there are eight homes within the four historic farm holdings. Inshal and a few Catholic friends purchased the farm in 2019.

“Cottonwood residents are diverse in age, education, background and career choice. They are high school teachers and tutors at St. Augustine’s, stay-at-home moms, writers, artists, office staff workers and tradesmen,” explains Monica Chenet.

“But all of us are trying to live out the universal call to holiness and striving to be positive influences in their workplaces and communities.”

Alongside the people of Cottonwood, you’ll also find the livestock of Cottonwood. There are two cows, eight pigs, nine sheep, meat rabbits, a bunch of hens, plus bees and plantations of vegetables and fruit. They sell these to friends and anyone who is interested. Inshal openly admits to being a “crunchy Catholic” who loves the idea of localism and self-sufficiency.

“We certainly take our inspiration from the idea of the ‘Benedict Option’ seeking to be ‘in the world, but not of it,’” says Jack Carter, who lives at Cottonwood with his wife, Alena.

“While we hold jobs and are contributing members of society, there is also a sense that Cottonwood is meant to be a community of faith that is somewhat at odds with the world, taking what is good but consciously rejecting what is bad, and fostering an authentic Catholic community for ourselves and our families.”

Jack is keen to stress, however, that Cottonwood is not a monastery, religious community or commune. There are no vows, promises or covenants. Instead, Jack says, “We are just living in houses that are close to one another,” and attempting to create the “historically ordinary life as would have been lived by people in any hamlet or village in any part of the western world prior to the Reformation.”

To this end, those who live at Cottonwood have a biweekly gathering that is open to all and draws in a greater circle of friends from throughout the area for a few hours of revelry, singing, readings and toasts.

“Our conversations range from politics and theology, to history and raising children, and everything in between,” says Danielle Negri, a Hillsdale College graduate.

“More often than not, there is a bonfire and ale and the occasional special commemoration of feast days, such as the Saint Joseph’s table, or historic events like the birthdays of the writers J.R.R. Tolkien or G.K. Chesterton.”

Amongst it all, the Catholic faith is the central identifying mark of Cottonwood Farm. Hence, the desire to erect a chapel where families can gather to pray, for example, the Liturgy of the Hours or the rosary. The concept of a private chapel already has the backing of the local pastor, Father Tom Wasilewski of Old Saint Patrick in Ann Arbor. The families have also reached out to the Office of Worship of the Diocese of Lansing for guidance.

“All that we are trying to do here is about living well and restoring many things that modern industrial life has robbed us,” concludes Inshal, “For example, the cows that we get milk from or the pigs and chickens for eggs and meat, we do all these things because we want to relearn and live on natural, self-sustaining, agrarian methods to help people live well.

“Similarly, we live in closer community because, naturally, it means that more relationships and stronger relationships develop. And hence the desire to have a chapel at the heart of our community, knowing that to be in right relationship with God is at the heart of community, at the heart of being in right relationship with others, at the heart of living well.”

• First published in July/August Edition of FAITH Magazine