The Other Side of Paradise

This week I was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Catholic Extension supports the Diocese of St. Thomas.

I know what you are thinking: what a tough assignment for a Chicagoan like me, who hasn’t seen the sun shine or felt a warm breeze on his face since October.  For the record, I did see a palm tree or two; I did behold turquoise waters softly undulating over coral, and I did happen to see a sandy beach.  This is indeed a paradise.  But I saw a side of paradise that the bronzed tourists in flip-flops and souvenir t-shirts undoubtedly miss during their visits.  I got to experience the reality that the Church lives every day.

We began our visit in downtown St. Thomas.  An abandoned building that serves as a drug house sits across the street from the Cathedral school.  Two doors down is a brothel, and then another brothel, and one more block down is yet another brothel, the largest of its kind on the Islands.  A few streets down is a neighborhood where the Catholic Church operates a soup kitchen to feed people who are literally starving.

The Church is present to all people on the islands.

As the bishop so aptly observed, “We are really entrenched in the realities of the Islands.”

I witnessed firsthand how the church is educating and forming young people who are constantly confronted with these perils.  In the past ten years, Catholic Extension has been supporting education, outreach, and faith formation initiatives.  The diocese is forming a powerful support system around these children.  They will need it.  The harsh realities of the island are not far away… they are actually right across the street.

Abandoned vehicles, which serve as makeshift homes, and junk line the streets of this neighborhood on the interior of the island.

As I entered the various classrooms of the Cathedral School, which educates students grades K-12, I was greeted by children in uniform, who reflect the social and economic diversity of the island.  The children stand up with broad smiles on their faces to greet their guests with their customary words, “Good morning and God loves you.”  These kids were faith-filled, happy, hard-working and free to dream big. “I want to be lawyer,” said one 6th grade girl whom we met in the middle of her history lesson.  “I get up at 5 a.m. every day and take a boat to school from another island,” said one high school-aged girl from behind her biology book.  The church’s presence doesn’t stop at the end of the school day, as almost every teenage student participates in their parish youth group.

While the church has made some great headway in transforming these lives while confronting the realities of the island, unfortunate indicators suggest there is still much work to be done.

We visited the Island of St. Croix and were taken to an isolated and impoverished neighborhood.  To get there we had to take a rugged road, which ultimately became completely impassible by car, forcing us to get out and walk.  “Come, I want to show you this place,” the bishop said.  It is a shanty town.  Some people live in abandoned cars; others live in houses surrounded by barbed wire and rusty scraps of sheet metal.   There is junk everywhere, entangled by lush vegetation.  An elderly man waved to us from where he sat on a worn-out couch under a tree.  The bishop explained that he celebrates Christmas mass here.  It breaks his heart to know that at least 67 children live in this neighborhood, many of whom live in volatile home environments and are not being educated.

The place where the Bishop celebrates Christmas Mass.

“Joe, if we can just get a building in this neighborhood, just get a presence going, I know we can make a difference.”

His observation is so correct.

In all the communities I visit, I invariably discover that the local Catholic Church is entrenched, and therefore uniquely positioned to transform people’s hearts and their communities.  I also realize how Catholic Extension is uniquely positioned to help respond to these needs and opportunities.

The church is entrenched in the realities of life, both the joys and the sorrows.  The church sees both sides of the island.

Carefree children play within the protective walls of the Cathedral School.

Through its 1,000+ grants per year  to U.S. –based Catholic “mission dioceses,” Catholic Extension and its donors are working hand-in-hand with these local churches, infusing new life in under-resourced communities near and far.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Small Investments, Big Results

Monsignor Gene Driscoll, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Lubbock, led the effort to establish the parish in 1998.

Fresh off our recent visit to the dioceses of San Angelo and Lubbock in the dry western half of Texas, I am struck by the fact that we witnessed something special: the fruits of investments made years ago.

Thirteen years ago, Catholic Extension made a $20,000 grant to the diocese of Lubbock to begin the process of creating a new parish in the diocese, the first in its 28-year history. “I didn’t even have a chair to sit on,” recalled Monsignor Gene Driscoll during the tour of the parish he helped found. Catholic Extension’s grant supported the establishment of an office for him at the Cathedral of Christ the King from which Monsignor Driscoll could begin his work of forming the new parish. In 1998, he gathered 20 couples and together they knocked on 9,500 doors in the area where the proposed parish would eventually be built. Their community outreach effort seems to have paid off. Thirteen years and two building phases later, Holy Spirit Catholic Church boasts more than 1,200 families and is bursting at the seams with activity. Since the first mass was celebrated in the fall of 1998, 470 people have been baptized. The community shows no sign of slowing down. To meet the demand for religious education, it has plans to build 14 more classrooms to supplement the existing campus which already includes a sanctuary that seats 1,400, a parish hall, a preschool and a baseball field.

The Holy Spirit Catholic community now worships in 1,400 seat sanctuary. The first mass was celebrated in 1998 in a Knights of Columbus hall that stood where the church now stands.

On another stop, south of San Angelo, the small town of Eldorado is home to a population of less than 2,000. We met with five of its teen residents who, thanks to a diocesan program called Make A Difference started with a $40,000 Catholic Extension grant in 2005, are committed to doing just that: make a difference.  Deisy, Audrey, Lauren, Joseph and Michael remarkably recounted how they each begrudgingly, at first, but joyfully, by the end, traded cell phones, junk food and sleeping in for a week helping strangers and growing in their faith.  Make a Difference, created by Franciscan Sister Adelina Garcia, OSF, is a week-long summer experience designed to expose Catholic teens from parishes throughout the diocese to a life of Catholic faith in action. Each day is filled with an experience of hands-on community service followed by an evening of prayer and reflection.  The intended result for participants, said Sister Garcia, is a broader sense of the Church and a deeper commitment to living their Catholic faith. The teens we met were living proof that it has worked.

In the background, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, home to “difference makers” Deisy, Audrey, Lauren, Michael and Joseph.

“It made me want to help people more and do other stuff with the Church,” said Joseph, a tall athletic young man who, alongside his brother, Michael, starts on the varsity basketball team and who, with their sister Lauren, is one of three in a set of triplets. It has given them confidence in their Catholic faith, too. In an area where Catholics are less than 20% of the population, Make A Difference gave the teens the support they needed to learn the faith from peers and leaders during the week and provided them with a network of friends to draw upon once they went home. More proof of the program’s effectiveness? Working with materials developed by Sister Adelina, Deisy is hoping to work with other Make A Difference alumni to mount a local version of the experience for more teens from her parish to experience.

Up until now, when visiting a mission diocese, I often found myself encountering something great, watching the seeds of something new take hold, like a new program or new building.  Instead, on this trip, alongside the new projects and possibilities, we encountered the fully-grown fruits of projects started years ago by Catholic Extension funds that today are flourishing on their own in the able hands of committed volunteers and leaders.  Modest investments made years ago by Catholic Extension donors are today paying dividends in the lives of thousands in San Angelo and Lubbock.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management