Seeing Great Returns on Our Investments

As we begin 2011, I look back at this past year with a sense of awe at what I’ve seen accomplished by the thousands of people to whom Catholic Extension donors entrusted $18 million dollars of support.

In 2010 I traveled tens of thousands of miles across the United States and its territories, and visited Catholic communities in some of the most forgotten places of our nation.  As I reflect on my visits, I arrive at one conclusion: these are people who are worth investing in.  Everywhere I turn, ordinary men and women have answered the call to serve in extraordinary ways.

Here are some of my experiences from 2010 that demonstrate the extraordinariness of our fellow Catholics and how they have done everything possible to deliver a great return on our investment:

  • Slashing Overhead in Puerto Rico.  I shared lunch with Bishop Inaki of the Diocese of Arecibo, PR.  Now in his mid seventies, Bishop Inaki spoke passionately about how during his nearly twenty–year tenure as bishop he has tried to focus his diocese on the poor.  He is deeply grateful for Catholic Extension’s $200,000 of annual assistance to the most under-resourced parishes in his diocese.  So, in an act of solidarity with the poor and in appreciation of outside donors who desire to fund mission and not overhead, Bishop Inaki has simply never taken a salary.  All he asks from the diocese are the clothes on his back and the shoes on his feet.  This is an interesting way to manage expenses, I remember thinking to myself.
  • Supplying Demand in Arizona.I met with Sr. Mary and Sr. Maureen who are charged with the religious education and community

    Sister Mary (left) and Sister Maureen (right), Daughters of Charity, are part of a powerful team at St. Jude in Tuba City, AZ.

    outreach for St. Jude Parish, in Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation.   Parish collections average only about $600 on a Sunday, so Catholic Extension donors subsidize the humble salaries of the four religious sisters who work at the Church.  How are they breathing life into this community?  Let’s consider the numbers.  Besides the many souls that they’ve fed this past year, the church’s food bank served about 50,000 hungry stomachs.  On top of that, the parish proudly organized a dinner for 2,000 people the week before Thanksgiving.  The sisters and the parishioners were exhausted, but deeply satisfied.

  • Low Cost & High Quality in Tennessee. I met an attorney, Jim, who had blue prints in hand and a smile on his face as he told me his parish’s underdog story.  He is a faithful Catholic man, who volunteers as the parish book-keeper.  With just a little bit of help from Catholic Extension, he was able to bring the first Catholic Church to Fentress County, Tennessee.  For decades, Catholics had been gathering for

    The 3,200 square feet of St. Christopher Church, the first Catholic Church in Fentress County, TN.

    mass at the local Presbyterian Church.  Knowing that the Catholic community of 75 families could never reach its full potential without its own church, Jim led parishioners through the legal paperwork, architectural planning, construction details, and fundraising strategy associated with building a church.  A master at negotiation, Jim got bargains on the land purchase and church construction.  The end result? A new, state-of-the-art church, now named St. Christopher, for a thrifty price of only $650,000.

  • High-Performing Investment in North Carolina. With just a modest-sized grant of $25,000 from Catholic Extension, the Hispanic Evangelization Center in Lenoir, North Carolina, led by the dynamic Fr. Julio Dominguez, has done some impressive things this year.  The

    Fr. Julio with the dedicated leaders who have committed three years to the “School of Faith” program in the Diocese of Charlotte.

    Center has attracted 45 new people to its “School of Faith,” a three-year leadership training for lay Catholics who desire to serve their community.  Additionally, the Center has held two seminars for youth and families, attracting 500 and 700 people respectively, and it hosted a men’s retreat attracting 120 men for a three-day experience.  Not surprisingly, the Center has been identified as a model ministry for the entire diocese.  Fr. Julio told me, “I have witnessed the transforming effect of such a strong religious and spiritual experience in the lives of these [people].”

The stories I share with you are not the exceptions. They are the norm.  These are the heroic people behind the scenes in the Catholic Church across the U.S. , who change lives and bring hope to under-resourced communities.  And, they do all of this at an absurdly low cost.  This is why at Catholic Extension we can say to you with total confidence that “every dollar counts.”

Here’s to a successful 2010, and here’s to an even better 2011.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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

Prisons, Ports, and Payless: Jesus visits the bayou.

David Smith casually chats and distribute pamphlets to two passersby at the “Ministry at the Mall.”

If Jesus were to visit Southern Louisiana, like we did last week, I think we’d find him showing up in some unlikely places. Thanks to some interesting ministries and innovative leaders supported by Catholic Extension throughout the bayou region, the notion that “Jesus meets people where they are” is taking on a whole new meaning.

Take for example, the kiosk sponsored by the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux at the Southland Mall in Houma, an oasis of Catholic freebies and educational material in an ocean of frenzied shopping. Located just outside of The Limited and a Payless shoe store, the kiosk has been staffed daily since November 1st by employees of the diocese and volunteers from the Catholic community. The vision for it belongs to Bishop Sam Jacobs who tapped Nancy and Dave Smith to organize daily volunteers, telling them “If Jesus came to Houma today, he’d go straight for the mall.” Bishop Jacobs himself is a regular at the kiosk who, according to David Smith, is a natural “mall minister”.

“This is his brainchild.  He comes out about twice a week, stays an hour or so and reaches out to everybody.  It’s amazing!” he said. In fact, it was Bishop Jacobs who encouraged us to visit the kiosk. We found it to be an exciting expression of the diocese’s commitment to evangelization along the same lines of the many programs Catholic Extension supports in Houma-Thibodaux, like the committed team of Hispanic volunteers we met at Sacred Heart Church in Cut Off, ably-organized by Sister Marta Perez, M.G.Sp.S., and Fr. Jerod Duet.

David and Nancy Smith stand proudly outside the kiosk sponsored by the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux at the Southland Mall in Houma, Louisiana, where they serve as volunteers to reach out to the community.

From the mall in Houma to the prisons in Lafayette, “meeting people where they are” takes a decidedly different shape.  In the Diocese of Lafayette, Jesus is showing up in the lives of those in prison and those hurt by the imprisoned.  Through the diocese’s Prison Ministry and the Survivors of Violence Ministry which are, according to director Ed Boustany, “two bookends of the same story – [serving] the two groups of individuals that are affected by violent acts,” the Church is a compassionate presence in some of the most heart-breaking situations in people’s lives, offering counseling to violence survivors and spiritual guidance and sacramental ministry for those in jail.

“There’s something about the power of the presence of the [Blessed Sacrament] that really affects these men,” Boustany says about the prisoners he leads communion services for. “They realize that it’s going to be something beyond them that’s going to save them. It comes from faith. It comes from that surrender to God when they can’t seem to surrender to anything else. And that’s where I think we make the difference…That’s what I see leads these men to change.”

The diocese’s presence in their life doesn’t end when they get out of prison, either.  Boustany coordinates parishes’ efforts to reach out to the recently released. He says many former inmates who were accompanied by the prison ministry while in jail now serve as volunteer mentors for those who remain.  He feels blessed by the dozens of volunteers who make themselves available to share their faith often under trying conditions and with little acknowledgement.

Deacon Lapoint, center, visits with Brian Hole, left, and Neil Dews of Seattle, Washington who spend time at the Seafarer’s center while awaiting work for their tugboat docked in the Port of Lake Charles.

Making his way west from Houma, past Lafayette, Jesus would very likely end up where we did among the docks and ship yards of the Port of Lake Charles. That’s where we met Deacon Patrick Lapoint who directs the Lake Charles Seafarer’s Center on behalf of the Diocese of Lake Charles. The center is the local outpost of an international network of chaplaincies dedicated to the unique lifestyle of sailors. The needs of sailors who often spend nine months or more away from home are often simple and straightforward, remedied by the nightly shuttle to a local mall or movie theater. But sometimes, Deacon Lapoint becomes a seaman’s only advocate in the face of unjust working conditions or personal emergencies.  More often, his is the only welcoming face that greets a sailor in an unfamiliar port thousands of miles from home.

In each case, and much like the places we witnessed throughout Southern Louisiana, Deacon Lapoint is the Church in its fullest expression of Jesus’ mission: present on the side of the forgotten and too-often overlooked, patiently and lovingly accompanying those whose lives are eclipsed by the immediate demands of the tragic and the mundane, providing the sure hand of welcome and assistance on their journeys.

Boats in the port of Lake Charles.

How has the Church been present to you in a time of need? How has Jesus met you where you are?

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants

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

The saints of the San Solano Mission

St. Catherine’s Church in Topowa, AZ.

A few weeks ago we visited the San Solano Missions located in the tribal lands of the Tohono O’Odham Nation southwest of Tucson. Our short visit was hosted by Fr. Ponchie Vásquez, O.F.M., one of two Franciscan friars whose salaries Catholic Extension supports.  Together with his Franciscan brother Fr. Ignatius DeGroot, O.F.M., Fr. Ponchie is charged with the pastoral care of those living in some three  dozen villages spread out across territory roughly the size of Connecticut. Nearly every village has its own chapel or sacred space, rising up from the sparse desert floor like the countless century-old Saguaro cacti that surround them.  Each, along with an adjacent feast house, is the heart of its spiritual and social life.

Fr. Ponchie Vásquez, one of the Franciscan friars supported by Catholic Extension, smiles proudly in front of St. Catherine’s Chapel.

When we sat with a half dozen residents of the village of South Komlic (don’t try finding it on the map) in one of the simple – and aging – chapels that dot the vast expanse of borderland, we heard the stories of generations of families connected to the land and to the Church through sacred spaces like the one we were sitting in. Stories like those of Jennie Urbina, whose grandmother grew up in South Komlic and remembers her hosting the priest each Sunday after Mass for lunch.

“The Church was part of their life, and part of my life.  It is a special place to come for encouragement, emotionally and spiritually.  We’re all related.  This is my home and these are my family,” Jennie explained about her neighbors sitting around her.

For Louis Norris, the chapel is the place where the past, present and future meet.

“We honor the saints here, the same way we honor each other,” he reflected. Honoring his neighbors does not stop at the chapel door for Louis.  He assists Fr. Ponchie by taking communion to the elderly. He was visiting 21 or 22 men and women the last time he counted.  His outreach is simple but profound. “I’m connected to them and inspired by what they say.  And I keep it in my heart and then give it back here, the church.”

The patronal feast day of each village is the pinnacle of Catholic life here. Most villages will host a big feast day celebration every other year to honor the saint to whom their chapel is dedicated.  Sitting in St. Jude’s humble chapel in South Komlic, no bigger than 400 square feet and home to more than six decades of sacred liturgies and community gatherings, I began to understand the deep connection this unique community has to each of its chapels and the significance of Catholic Extension’s support.

“The people believe that the chapel is literally the home of the saint. That’s where they live,” Fr. Ponchie explained. He described how on feast days everyone brings the statue of the saint they keep in their home to the chapel for the celebration. On those special occasions, the chapel will be filled with saints.

While we had missed St. Jude’s celebration by just a few days and all of the statues of him and his friends had made their way back to places of honor in the homes nearby, a few saints still remained – the living saints of St. Jude’s Chapel – faithful men and women like Fr. Ponchie, Louis, Jennie and their neighbors, whose collective memory and daily commitments keep the Catholic faith alive for the people of the San Solano Missions.

Who are the saints that keep the faith alive in your community?

Louis Norris (far left), who assists Fr. Ponchie by taking communion to the elderly, stands together with his Catholic family outside St. Jude’s.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants

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

Hope: A Stadium Full of Proof

At Catholic Extension, we’ve seen so many inspiring Catholic communities doing so much with few resources.  We’ve developed a saying to describe what we are witnessing: “Hope is happening in 3-D.”

A young person bears gifts at Mass while 10,000 onlookers watch.

This past weekend, I visited Stockton, for a unique event held in the community for the last 30 consecutive years: the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration.  More than 12,000 people of all ages from parishes throughout the Diocese of Stockton are represented at this annual event, which includes a procession with dozens of semi-trucks hauling meticulously decorated floats that slowly make their way down the streets as parishioners sing hymns, perform traditional cultural dances in magnificently colorful costumes, or dress in character to act out scenes from the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego.

“When I first celebrated the Feast of Our Lady in the 1960s, there were only three people. Now it overwhelms me to come here today and see the thousands.”

The procession is about a mile in length and ends at the Stockton Arena, an indoor sports stadium, where approximately 10,000 faithful pack the stands for a post-procession Mass with the bishop.  While Catholics have been doing processions (the precursor to the modern parade) for centuries, one of this scale is truly a sight to behold.

The most striking thing about the celebration, though, isn’t the enormous  procession or arena Mass, but is, in fact, the vibrant, growing faith community the event has helped to create.  For three decades, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has united the community of Stockton, enriched the faith of people and acted as a force of hope in the face of severe economic hardship and escalating crime rates in some areas.  It draws people, particularly young people, into the Church.

After the event we caught up with some of the Catholic faithful who have been a part of the event for many years. The significance and growth of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration was underscored by a woman who danced in the procession in its earliest days and today watches her grandchildren participate in the event. “I’ll stand up to say this,” she said, pushing her walker away from her. “When I first celebrated the Feast of Our Lady in the 1960s, there were only three people.  Now it overwhelms me to come here today and see the thousands.”

Youth march through the streets of Stockton, CA as part of the annual procession to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.

One of the teenagers involved in the festivities talked about how she has witnessed young people’s lives literally transformed through their experience with this event.  “Doing drugs, getting pregnant, or joining a gang are ways that young people get into trouble here, but we’ve seen kids turning away from that because this event gives them hope and purpose.”

One young man, who performs in the parade each year and attributes his survival of a bad accident to Our Lady of Guadalupe, said, “We realize we are family here, united in our faith.”

“When I see all these young people walking the streets in the name of the Church,” said one man, “the hair on my arms just stands right up.”

In a recent blog post, I talked about resourceful Christianity — people who really stretch the dollar.  Stockton’s Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe event requires a full year of planning, involves hundreds of volunteer organizers and, ultimately, engages thousands of people who sing and perform in the procession.  Considering the Diocese of Stockton has only a single paid staff person organizing this event, one stands in amazement at the community’s ability to organize and grow a celebration of this magnitude from 3 to 12,000 over the years.

But Stockton’s Catholics are determined to keep expanding the event.  Catholic Extension is working with the diocese to further support its efforts to enhance the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe experience and create a more financially sustainable event, so that the continued growth of this Catholic feast does not outgrow the diocese’s capacity to host this experience and reach out to even more of the nearly 325,000 people in the area.

This past Sunday, I saw 12,000 people and 12,000 reasons to be hopeful.  As one man told me, “When we all come together like this, we realize we are not alone.”  I couldn’t help but think about those early disciples who, upon realizing that they weren’t alone, immediately got out into the streets to offer some Good News to the world.  We were grateful to see hopeful things take place before our eyes– in 3-D – during an extraordinary day in Stockton, CA.

Where do you see hope happening near you?

Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored by an annual procession in Stockton, CA.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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

Resourceful Christianity

I have just returned from Eastern Kentucky in the Diocese of Lexington, a trip that included hundreds of miles of travel across Kentucky’s Appalachia Mountains.

St. Martha’s Church in Prestonsburg, KY faces an abandoned coal mine.

This is a place where poverty and social problems are rampant.  We heard stories of families literary starving. We heard about households in which toilet paper is a luxury.  We heard that hundreds of parents cannot afford to purchase underwear and socks for their children, including one account of a young girl who, upon receiving the gift of socks for Christmas from her church, clutched those socks  closely to her face and contemplated the gift with as much delight as a girl getting a pony. We heard stories of horrific living conditions: of uninhabitable, rat-infested trailer homes with the floors falling in. These are the realities of poverty in this country, and many of these tales are hard to accept.  But there is another, much more hopeful reality. We also heard and saw that God is alive and active in these mountains.

Our Lady of the Mountains Church in Stanton, KY.

By the end of my visit, I found myself thunderstruck – not by the dreadful poverty, but by the unquenchable passion of our Church to walk with those who live in poverty. Catholics are a minority in Appalachia, and in some areas they are still not even recognized as Christian.  In many counties in the Diocese of Lexington, Catholics are one in a thousand (or 0.1% of the population).  But, what Catholics lack in numbers, they make up for in their presence to their communities.  Their outreach efforts are simply superhuman.

Over the past few decades, we learned, the Catholic Church has been able to increase its outreach, gain community trust and increase the number of people who practice the faith.  We visited one parish that has slowly built up its base of parishioners over the years.  In fact, 80 percent of the church’s 100+ families are converts, including the parish priest.

What is drawing them to our faith? The mighty deeds of resourceful, joyful, faithful Catholics who represent hope to a forgotten people.

Fr. Bob Damron of St. Martha’s Church in Prestonsburg, KY.

One 87-year-old monsignor from Louisa, Kentucky, whose energy level has visibly increased with age, is gearing up to serve 18,000 families this year. He said to me, “We are going to do something to help people; we’re not going to sit around and talk about it.”

A parishioner at Our Lady of the Mountains in Stanton, Kentucky told me how she feels about her weekly service to struggling mothers, a ministry that is hosted by her church. “I know God has called me here, I just know he has,” she said with the fire of conviction burning in her eyes.

“What is your hope for this parish?” I asked a group of parish leaders at one church. “To be able to help more people,” three of the leaders chimed in with little hesitation. “Here, we know how to live our Christianity,” one woman told me.

In spite of their resourcefulness and intelligence, these hardworking Catholics expressed to me in varied ways how deeply aware they are that all of us are ultimately reliant on divine providence, and that their efforts are dependent on God’s grace and generosity.

At St. Martha’s Catholic Church in Prestonsburg, where Catholic Extension recently helped build an outreach center, many of the parishioners thanked Catholic Extension and its donors for sharing in their mission.  Those of us from Catholic Extension, in turn, shared how proud we are to call parishes like these our partners.  These parishioners demonstrated to us, once again, that Catholic Extension doesn’t provide charity. Rather, it offers support to further the efforts of dynamic faith communities who are, in their words, “carrying on the work of Christ.”  Their resourcefulness in these noble endeavors is perhaps summed up best by one parishioner who told me, “Oh, we can stretch a dollar like you wouldn’t believe.”

As I absorbed all of this information over several days, St. Paul was ringing in my ears: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Adversity is not impeding our fellow Catholics around the country from putting faith into action; in fact, adversity is ironically driving their action with greater force.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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

Our Christmas Wish List

Now that the excitement of the Christmas season is upon us, we want to let you know about Catholic Extension’s 2010 Christmas Wish List—25 “wishes” from under-resourced and isolated dioceses across America who need your support. Please check out this year’s list and stay tuned as we highlight a different “wish” through Twitter over the next 25 days.

Click here to see the full 2010 Catholic Extension Wish List.