Father Tolton

“Nothing will be impossible for God.” (Lk 1: 37)

Last week in my “America’s Children” post, I talked about some of the real-time saints emerging among the youth in California, those brave kids who are up against tremendous forces.

Fr. Tolton overcame unthinkable adversity to be ordained as the country’s first African-American Catholic priest.

I am pleased to still be on “saint watch” this week as we witness an official saint-in-the-making from a little-known place in the U.S. called, Brush Creek, MO. The candidate for sainthood’s name is Fr. Augustine Tolton and St. Peter Church in Brush Creek is the place where he was baptized 156 years ago.

Fr. Tolton was born into slavery and later overcame unthinkable adversity to be ordained as the country’s first African-American Catholic priest.  He attended St. Peter until he escaped to the free state of Illinois during the Civil War.  He wanted to become a priest, but was denied access to seminaries in the U.S. So he went to the Urban College in Rome, where he was ordained in 1886. He returned to the U.S. to serve and, despite rampant racism and discrimination, he became one of Chicago’s most popular pastors, attracting members of both white and black Catholic communities.   He shines as an example of what happens when Christians embrace this crazy idea that “nothing will be impossible for God.”

As we wrap up Black Catholic History Month this November, we at Catholic Extension have announced a grant to the Diocese of Jefferson City, where the tiny town of Brush Creek is located.  We have pledged to help the diocese repair the humble site of Fr. Tolton’s baptism, a church accessible only via gravel road, to preserve the enormously important legacy of a heroic priest of the late 19th century who is now being considered for sainthood.  Pilgrims are beginning to visit this sacred place as more and more people become aware of the Fr. Tolton story through the Archdiocese of Chicago’s efforts to present his cause for canonization.

Currently, St. Martin de Porres is the Catholic Church’s only “official” saint of African descent in the Western Hemisphere.  Fr. Tolton would be a welcome addition to that rank.  His story in so many ways represents the rich history of African-American Catholics, who in spite of many setbacks and struggles over the years have intrinsically shaped our Catholic religious experience in the U.S. and have made us a better, more complete Church.

My own spiritual formation, in a very personal way, has been influenced by the Black Catholic perspective here in Chicago in parish not far from where Fr. Tolton once ministered a century ago.  For several years, I attended a church whose goal, which many parishioners could repeat verbatim, was  “to bring one more soul closer to Christ and to help somebody along the way.” For me, this sums up both the spiritual and the social dimensions of Christianity that African American Catholics intuitively understand and embody.

Fr. Tolton’s story reminds us of the truth that is also at the heart of Catholic Extension’s work: the greatest among us emerge from the least-expected places. Our grant to St. Peter will enable the Diocese of Jefferson City to preserve the rich legacy of America’s first African-American priest, so that Fr. Tolton’s story can continue to be shared among Catholics and give hope to communities that face immense social and economic challenges today.”

You can read more about Fr. Augustine Tolton’s life at : http://www.catholicextension.org/site/epage/108432_667.htm

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Joe on Twitter.

America’s Children

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a child over, placed him in their midst…“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18: 2,4)

Their local baseball team was minutes away from winning the World Series, however dozens of local youth came to welcome Catholic Extension (getting updates about their team via cell phone).

This week I was in northern California, where Catholic Extension supports many under-resourced communities, and came face to face with the church’s fervent outreach to children and teens.  The challenges these kids face are mind-boggling and the stakes are high – but I like our odds in this uphill battle.  I like our odds because I’ve seen what the Church’s presence can mean for these kids, and I’ve seen these brave young people answering the call to leadership.

I visited a town with an estimated 3,000 active gang members.   Many young people are caught in the crossfire, and they’ve had enough.  They also realize they hold the keys to change.

We visited a couple of youth groups from different parishes.  What we discovered is that these groups are more than just mechanisms for keeping kids out of harm’s way. They help change the kids’ perceptions of themselves and what they have to offer.

“So, what are your gifts?” I asked them. “An ability to focus,” said one. “An ability to be strategic,” responded another.   One young woman said, “This church represents who we are, and this is where we feel most comfortable.”

I was invited to speak to a group of about 50 teens gathered at one of the parishes we visited.  “I come from an organization that tries to tell Catholics around the country about the challenges that other Catholics are facing in little-known areas,” I said, “and the incredibly powerful things people like you are doing in the face of such opposition.”

Pictured here with his youth leader, this young man said his favorite saint is Martin de Porres, “Because Martin spoke to Jesus as a friend”

The day happened to be Nov 1, the Feast of All Saints.  I told them how appropriate it was to gather on the occasion of this centuries-old feast commemorating all the heroes and heroines of our faith. “After listening to your incredibly powerful stories,” I said, “it is clear to me that there are true heroes, saints, emerging in this very room.”

How fortunate I felt to be hearing their message to America.

“We want people to know that we are good, that we have something to share,” a young woman told me after the meeting.  Then, without skipping a beat, she went to the wall of the parish hall where we were gathered and she pulled down a handmade poster decorated with rival gang colors on either side.  In the middle of the poster was a cross and the word, “united.”  “Take this poster,” she said, “let people know everything we are doing to change our community.”

The young people light candles on a “Day of the Dead altar” during a prayer service, in which they rememberall their beloved deceased. They also pray to God for the fulfillment of their deepest hopes and dreams.

Adult leaders of these parish youth groups are equally impressive.  They believe that faith in a loving God and support from a nurturing church community can transform kids who will ultimately transform the world.  One adult volunteer leader said to me, “I am here working with these youth because I want to develop people of faith and good community leaders.”  He went on, “If I could just save 100 kids I would do this work, if I could save 50, I would do this, if I could save 30, likewise, and if I could just save even one kid, this work would be worth it for me.”

Our opportunity as Catholics to impact young people’s lives across our country is real.  In 2011, as we  celebrate World Youth Day, Frank and I will keep you posted on the many ways Catholic Extension wants to increase support of the Church’s outreach to young people across the country.  They represent many cultures and economic backgrounds.  Yet, they share one thing in common: despite struggles and challenges, they are becoming ready and willing leaders in the faith and in their communities.

It’s going to be an exciting year for all who are Catholic to rally around our young people, and cultivate today’s young saints who will breathe new life into our nation.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Joe on Twitter.

Leadership as big as Texas

What do a prison chaplain, a retired postmaster, the owner of a lawn care service, a former Navy Commander and the one-time mayor of Canton, Texas have in common? Besides dedication, a strong faith and the ability to wear multiple hats, they share the sacrament of Holy Orders as permanent deacons of the Diocese of Tyler – or as Bishop Alvaro Corrada calls them: one of the two “lungs” that breathe life into the Church of this sizable East Texas diocese.  They’re not the only ones, either. On a recent visit to Tyler, the Catholic Extension team got to meet these and many more Deacons – some along with their wives – and hear stories of their ministries in far-flung places throughout a diocese that spans 33 counties and covers almost 23,000 square miles.

From L to R: Deacon Robert Rhodes talks with Deacon Gregorio Sanchez and Deacon Ruben Natera

The ministries they carry out for the people of East Texas are as diverse as their backgrounds, too. Take Deacon Gregorio Sanchez, for example. Ordained three years, Deacon Gregorio runs his lawn care business while assisting with pastoral ministries for Spanish-speaking East Texans in two parishes. Most days Deacon Robert Rhodes leaves his “day job” at Texas Eastman in Longview to teach high school formation classes and serve the faithful at his home mission in Hallsville, Our Lady of Grace.  Deacon Fred Arrambidez, Tyler’s retired postmaster, has added two stops to his route since being ordained two years ago: assisting at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and selling insurance as a Knights of Columbus field agent.

For others, their livelihood is their ministry. Deacon Richard Lawrence – he’s the former mayor – heads up the diocese’s Office of Discipleship and Stewardship. Deacon Jerry Besze and his wife Mary direct the diocese’s Marriage and Family Life office. Deacon Ruben Natera serves as the diocesan Chancellor after years of service in both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Navy, including a tour in Kuwait.  We met Deacon Dan Rose, a full-time prison chaplain, who serves among the incarcerated men at a maximum security prison southwest of Tennessee Colony when he’s not assisting at his parish in Palestine or its mission in Frankston. While an ordained Catholic clergyman, Deacon Dan ministers to men of all faiths when he visits the Coffield Prison Unit.

And they keep coming , too. Tyler, one of the smallest dioceses in the U.S. in terms of population, has boasted some of the largest diaconate classes in the country in recent years. That’s thanks to couples like Dr. Joe and Marilyn Bianca. The retired obstetrician and his wife are now in their second year of formation, a five-year process during which a deacon-aspirant is joined by his wife for nearly all phases.

The success is no fluke, either. Bishop Corrada has a clear vision for where deacons fit into the diocese’s three-pronged evangelization strategy.  We’re grateful to be associated with the Diocese of Tyler and its deacons by funding half of the annual cost of formation at the University of Dallas. These men, their wives, and the communities that support them, including the bishop and priests of the diocese are bearing witness to what a faithful and committed response to service looks like and what it means to the whole church.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants Management
Follow Frank on Twitter.

450 miles through Texas

Last month saw the Catholic Extension team visiting our friends in the Dioceses of Tyler and Beaumont. The 450-mile trip started at DFW airport and would end about 48 hours later as my weary colleagues boarded their flight bound for Chicago. What we witnessed between airport runs would leave all of us grateful once again for the privilege of serving the Church off the beaten path. Here’s a quick sketch of the places we visited. Later, I’ll post some more in-depth stories to highlight what we encountered.

Tuesday (October 19th):

  • Lunch with one of the “two lungs” of the Diocese of Tyler: deacons, kicked off by a surprise visit by Bishop Alvarado Corrada.
  • St. William of Vercelli in Carthage for a walk-through of a new parish activity center 17 years in the making conceived as a blessing not only to local Catholics but the entire hurricane-weary region.
  • Last stop: Mass and laughs with Catholic Lumberjacks. That is ,the student leaders of the Catholic community at Stephen. F Austin State University in Nacogdoches, a lively and warm bunch that is proud of their burgeoning community.

Wednesday (October 20th):

  • After a long drive Tuesday night to Beaumont, we were treated to a delicious breakfast with Bishop Guillory at a local favorite, Carmela’s Mexican Restaurant.
  • Some downtime gawking at the interior of the beautiful St. Anthony’s Cathedral  convinced me that it was the perfect home of a Catholic community, rich in faith and history, ready to share its gifts with the entire region.
  • Meetings with talented diocesan staff, old, new and retired, were informative and tipped me off to the breadth and complexity of pastoral needs the Church must respond to with hope and creativity.
  • Last stop, the remarkable young leaders of Cristo Rey Parish – including one 89 years young  – who introduced us to the “new Juan Diegos”.

More on , at least, some of these to come.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants Management
Follow Frank on Twitter.