No Catholic Left Behind (Alaska Part 1)

Ever since Fr. Wall joined Catholic Extension as president in 2007, the dioceses of Alaska – Juneau and Fairbanks along with the Archdiocese of Anchorage – have been encouraging him to visit,  to experience this unique expression of the Church that is supported by Catholic Extension donors.  This week we landed in Juneau, the smallest diocese in the country in terms of population, but one in which nine priests and one bishop “shepherd a flock” spread out over 700 miles, the size of Florida, and much of it navigable only by boat or plane.  The severe weather, vast distances and time it takes to travel are mind-boggling.  The spirit and faith of these Catholics is awe-inspiring.  The needs are great.

Bishop Burns of Juneau welcomes Fr. Wall to Shrine of St. Terese, a Catholic landmark on SE AK coastline.

According to locals, Alaska has the highest rate of suicide in the entire U.S, double the rest of the country.  It also has the highest rate of domestic violence.  The sheer beauty of southeast Alaska – snow-capped mountains and pristine glacial waters – can overshadow these tough realities. Yet, one becomes inspired by the faith and tenacity of the people coming together at the church even when they can’t have a priest on a regular basis.  (Catholics comprise about 10 percent of the population; more staggering is that approximately 60 percent of Alaskan’s are “unchurched.”)

We traveled by boat to Tenakee Springs (pop 131) where parishioners start pouring into the newly renovated St. Francis Chapel the minute the boat docks.  One parishioner has renovated the chapel with his own hands; another’s son-in-law has built the beautiful, rustic altar; another has  painstakingly repaired the broken pieces of the crucifix.  These are hands-on Catholics ready to celebrate the Eucharist any time a priest comes.  Catholic Extension has built or helped renovate nearly every church in Alaska and these parishioners – a faithful, outspoken bunch – are grateful for any chance to receive the Word or the Eucharist.  They are hungry for more.

Karla Donaghey of Diocese of Juneau restored the broken, worn crucifix for St. Francis Chapel in Tenakee Springs, AK (pop 104).

The next stop is Hoonah, a predominantly Native American community of 700 nearly two hours from Juneau.  Tragedy struck here last summer when two local policemen were gunned down for no apparent reason by a citizen.  The diocese is still trying to support the parishioners of Sacred Heart and the community as they recover from their shock and grief.

We celebrate Mass with Bishop Burns and Fr. Wall, among others.  One parishioner arrives in a wheelchair, delighted with the opportunity to experience the liturgy.  He prays a special intention “for those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse.”  He is accompanied by his friend, a woman, and they clutch hands as the Mass unfolds.  She has designed and painted Sacred Heart’s nameplate – another sign of the love and care these parishioners pour into their churches.

Back in Juneau, we learn that 32 young Catholics have worked tirelessly to raise the funds to attend World Youth Day in Madrid this summer.  Spaghetti suppers, car washes, raffle tickets, “chorebusters,” movie nights, and the presence of “kids at the church all the time running fundraisers” – coupled with funds from Catholic Extension donors – are making the trip possible.  It’s so important for these kids “to see and experience the universal church firsthand,” explained John, their youth ministry director.

Bishop Burns celebrating Mass in Juneau at the Catheral of the Nativity of the BVM.

With a diocese this vast, investing in technology is top of mind, explained Bishop Burns.  He’s already using Skype to communicate with youth groups too far away to reach.  It will be critical for adult faith formation as well as lay leader training.

We often hear that it’s our duty to ensure “no child is left behind.”  Visiting the Diocese of Juneau makes you realize that it’s also imperative to make sure “no Catholic is left behind.”  Thanks to Catholic Extension donors, and the work of some very determined, dedicated people, it’s working.

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications

Never Give Up

Never give up.  That is the attitude of Catholics in rural Virginia.  Last week, I met with communities where Catholic Extension has provided support and others in which we are exploring ways to provide new support.  These people are worth getting to know.

Dillanie is a Catholic student committed to her faith in spite of the many obstacles.

I met Dillanie, a 19-year old college student, who converted to Catholicism last year.  She jokes that she hit a “Catholic Grand Slam” when she entered the church by making a profession of faith, baptism, first Eucharist and Confirmation several months before starting college.  That was arguably her Catholic honeymoon.  Now she attends University of Virginia at Wise, where there is no Catholic campus ministry and no parish.  She does not have a car to drive to the nearest parish 15 miles away.  Dillanie admits that she gets heavy flak for being Catholic from her fellow students.  This, however, does not stop her from practicing her faith.  Every Sunday, she asks one of her Protestant classmates to drive her to church, where she attends Sunday Mass by herself. “It’s very difficult when there’s no support system,” she said

Because she has been so unapologetic about her commitment to her faith, other Catholic students are now beginning to surface on campus.  But, without coordination or leadership, Catholic students find it hard to get a community going.  Catholic Extension is in discussion with the Diocese of Richmond about how we can support the college students of this southwestern Appalachia region of Virginia.

Tazwelle, VA nestled in the Appalachian hills, is in danger of losing its soul and its future to rampant drug use among the youth.

The young people of this area are fighting for more than just their spiritual lives, as I learned from the parishioners of St. Theresa in Tazewell, Virginia, a parish of about 100 families that covers several counties of southwestern Virginia.  Since the mid-‘80s they have watched the addictive Oxycontin drug decimate their youth.  “We have a major drug problem here.  Everyone has been touched by it one way or another,” said Pat.  Last year the parish buried a 23 year-old woman who overdosed on the drug.  In spite of this, the parishioners have not lost hope. “We are few in number and big in faith,” said Kathy.  “All of us have had struggles in these small parishes, but ‘the Church’ is us, and we’re not going to give up. We are Catholic to the bone.”  These are powerful words for a community facing such an uphill battle.

In partnership with the diocese, Catholic Extension would like to develop Catholic young adult leaders who can provide companionship, purpose and the gift of faith to the youth in this area.

Fr. Dan Kelly wears a constant smile as he visits the orchard camps.

I met Fr. Dan Kelly, pastor of St. Mary in Lovingston, Virginia, and St. Francis of Assisi in Amherst, Virginia.  Both churches have been supported by Catholic Extension in the past six years to help build new facilities for these growing communities.  I quickly realized the cause of this growth:  Fr. Dan is perhaps the most energetic and outgoing 73-year old I’ve ever encountered.  Having absolutely no intentions of retiring or slowing down, Fr. Dan faithfully pastors his two churches and somehow finds the time to minister to nine different field worker camps in the area.  In spite of his age and his work load, he will not stop.

Beto, an orchard worker and proud Catholic, shows the image sown into his scapular of St. Toribio Romo, a 20th century Martyr.

He took us to one of these camps to introduce us to the men who work the orchards.  Away from their wives and children, and their faith community, they labor six days a week for nine straight months in the peach and apple industries.  The men are delighted to see Fr. Dan, who shows up with a full kettle of spaghetti that he prepared himself.  With the Irish twinkle in his eyes, Fr. Dan tells jokes to the workers over dinner, speaking Spanish with his endearing Gringo accent.  Beto, one of the workers, said that all the men are very Catholic, and they feel privileged to practice their faith with the help of Fr. Dan.

Out of their struggles, Catholics of Virginia have been conditioned to walk by faith.  They are building a foundation upon which Catholic Extension, in partnership with these refreshingly determined communities, can help create a foundation for a stronger Catholic Church that can serve as the compassionate hands of Christ for an area in need.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Putting a Price on the Invaluable

During my recent trip to Puerto Rico, I met the extraordinary Missionaries of Villaregia in the Diocese of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The Missionaries are a congregation of 16 men and women who minister to the spiritually and materially poor.  They work particularly closely with at-risk youth and families in crisis by inviting them into a community of faith and teaching them what can be possible in life when love is at the heart of it.  In any given year, they serve as many as 2,000 youths and hundreds of married couples.

The Missionaries and the local bishop have sought Catholic Extension’s support to build a missionary center that will enable them to significantly expand their ministry.  My visit was intended to assess how Catholic Extension can help.

During my visit, I heard compelling stories from several young adults whose lives have been changed by the Missionaries and who now are part of this movement.

Alejandro and Maria

I met 24-year-old Alejandro.  This law student explained that during his childhood, his parents left him.  He overcame those turbulent years because the Catholic faith community, pastored by the Missionaries, became his family.  It was in this community that he learned he was not alone in the world and that he, too, could be a mentor for others.  Alejandro and his girlfriend, Maria, also a 24-year-old graduate student from the same parish, lead a faith-sharing group at their local university, where they read scripture and support their fellow students.  On weekends, Maria and Alejandro still return to their parish to teach and mentor young children and teens.


Anna is 18-years-old.  She is the direct result of the work of Alejandro and Maria at the missionary center, who have been mentoring her from a young age.  She is also a new university student who is considering how she, too, can give back.  She is even thinking about a vocation to religious life as a sister.


Raymond is 25-years-old and grew up in a home with a father that abused drugs and alcohol. This experience made life as a young person very difficult.  One retreat, led by the Missionaries, changed his life forever.  He realized that life was more than his own circumstances and learned what it meant to be loved by a family. Years later, he and his father reconciled with the help of the Missionaries.  Raymond continues to do anything he can to support this life-changing ministry.

Jennifer – “We are all capable. Nobody’s so poor that they can’t do something for God”

Jennifer is a 24-year-old from a Catholic family. As a teenager, she didn’t think much of herself or believe that she had much to offer the world.  When she met the Missionaries of Villaregia, that all changed.  Jennifer began to believe that God was calling her to do something special.  Since that time, she’s discovered her sense of worth and feels ready to give back.  She felt so strongly about this calling that she joined the Missionaries as a novice sister.  Now in her second year, the future looks bright for Jennifer as she considers how to best live a life of service in the Church.

Maria Magdalena

Maria Magdalena is a 21-year-old nursing student.  She met the Missionaries as a late teen.  They helped her realize that the most beautiful thing a person can do in life is to live it for others.   She now helps by mentoring other young people.  Tears filled her eyes as she pondered the new possibilities that new facility would bring to her ministry.  “We are family and this is a house for everyone.  People will come here to be fed,” she sobbed.

As these stories suggest, the Missionaries have touched the lives of many youths in the community.  Their programs have become so successful that they’ve quickly outgrown their current facilities.

After 14 years of saving and two years of construction, the missionaries are just $800,000 short on cash for making the missionary center a reality.  But, with just $300,000, they can finish the framing and dry wall and begin to use the center, which will accommodate as many as 900 people for gatherings and 200 overnight guests.

Fr. Roberto, who leads the Missionaries, believes that with such a strong foundation of young leaders, the new facility will be bustling with activity in no time.  The only thing that stands in the way of this is a cash shortfall. 

Stay tuned for Catholic Extension’s response.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Committed to Excellence in the Caribbean

The Caribbean islands trigger some stereotypical imagery: people spending their days on beachfront hammocks secured between two palm trees, sipping drinks with tiny umbrellas, and being carefree.  But life here is more than a Corona commercial, and after my recent trip to Puerto Rico, I have to admit that I am exhausted.  For the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to keep pace with the Puerto Rican communities supported by Catholic Extension.  They are tireless in their commitment to serve the Church and to provide faith and hope for people whose lives are filled with hardship.

Nearly 300 ordained and lay leaders gather to learn about Parish administration.

Religious and lay leaders attended the administrative leadership event

Nearly 300 Puerto Rican priests and lay ministers gathered in Ponce, Puerto Rico for an administrative leadership event hosted and sponsored by Catholic Extension.  The number of participants was impressive, as ministers are stretched thin on the island and often don’t have spare time for professional development.   But there they were, traveling from all over the island to discuss best practices in matters of financial and personnel management.  Halfway through the daylong seminar, on a blisteringly hot day, the air conditioning broke in the sports complex where we gathered.  Even still, all participants stuck it out through the intense heat until the very end.  They wanted to take advantage of the rare opportunity to learn about internal audit procedures and discuss effective volunteer management.  That’s true dedication!  Though drenched, people hung around afterwards to express how incredibly thankful they were for the workshop.

Leaders of Puerto Rico eagerly ask follow up questions about the budgeting process.

Later that evening I met with the parishioners of Ss. Peter and Paul Church in the small town of Puente Jobos,( in the Diocese of Ponce) where there were as many stray dogs, cats, and roosters roaming the streets as there were people.  This parish of 700 people needs new offices.  We held our meeting in the parish’s current “office:” a picnic table outside the church.   Daniel, a smiley and energetic parishioner, has been working hard for his parish for 26 years.  For years the parish has been fundraising and saving for a much-needed renovation.  Thanks to their efforts, coupled with a $75,000 commitment from Catholic Extension, Daniel will finally have a meeting space for himself and his fellow parish leaders who do everything from religious education to neighborhood outreach.   They hope that their work will help reverse the rampant problems caused by drugs, domestic violence, and criminal behavior in their small, inner-island community.

Parishioners of Ss. Peter and Paul do business from the picnic table in the absence of parish offices.

“We feel so blessed that there are Catholics throughout the U.S. who are sacrificing for us by giving to Catholic Extension,” said one of the parish leaders.  “This makes the saying ‘universal church’ come alive for me,” added another.

Are these people the carefree folks that we continentals have pegged them to be?  No.  Are they committed to excellence in spite of challenges?  Most definitely.

This is the heart of Catholic Extension’s mission: to extend support to those dedicated people throughout the U.S. and its territories who, though under-resourced, strive to create excellence in church life and ministry.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Faith in People: Investing in the Future

In a time of institutional uncertainty for the Catholic Church in the U.S., we are still able to soundly invest in its future.  We do this by investing in people.  This was the observation of Catholic Extension’s Chancellor, Francis Cardinal George, in his remarks to our board members last week.  He went on to say that even if institutions fade, the faith will remain if we invest in people by providing leadership training, adult faith formation and religious education.  My travels this week confirmed this fact.

On June 3, I spent an evening with 120 young Catholics gathered in Philadelphia for the Campus Ministry Leadership Institute, an annual gathering of college student leaders designed to give Catholic students tools and training to be faith leaders on their campuses.  Catholic Extension provided funding so that nearly 50 students from under-resourced and geographically distant areas of the country could be a part of this experience.  Beginning in 2012, Catholic Extension will help regionalize this institute so Catholic university students from the Southeast, Southwest, and Western states will have greater access to this training.


Students from the University of Missouri and Alumni of the Campus Ministry Leadership.

I met an extraordinary group of young people who, with support and encouragement, are going to do amazing things both in the coming academic year and in their future careers.

Alicia, from the University of Colorado in the Diocese of Colorado Springs, plans to implement a peer-to-peer outreach so that her campus ministry can connect more Catholic students to the Catholic Church.  “We are all passionate about our faith and our belief in God is moving us to do this,” she said.

Kristin, a native Texan studying education at Texas Tech in the Diocese of Lubbock, says her faith is impacting her career plans.  Initially, she wanted to try to “make some money.”  But, after teaching in a Catholic School, she decided to dedicate her career to educating the poor.  “Children need to know that they are loved by God,” she said.

Dan, a journalism major and campus ministry intern from the University of Missouri in the Diocese of Jefferson City, admits that campus ministry has changed his life. “It’s made me consider service in the Church,” he stated with great sincerity, explaining that he is considering the pursuit of many ministerial vocations upon graduation, including the priesthood.

It’s amazing to be in a room with so many young Catholics who are fervently faithful and accept the invitation to leadership.  As I spoke with the students about their interests and dreams, Cardinal George’s words resonated deeply.  These are the future leaders of the Church, and we must invest in them now.

Catholic Extension is discussing with campus ministers how we can solidify this leadership pipeline, so that we are investing in the development of young people during their college years, while creating post-graduate leadership opportunities as well. We cannot lose touch with these aspiring young leaders, who are arguably the Church’s greatest assets.

It’s faith-affirming to meet with these young Catholics, who are giving so much of themselves and receiving so much from their Catholic faith.  It reminds us that, no matter what, we must invest in people, because people do make a difference.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Doing the Math: What the Numbers are Telling Us

Numbers tell a powerful story of what is happening in the Church.  They also help quantify the progress as well as the challenges.  As I return from my travels in the Southeast coastal region of Charleston and Savannah, there are some astounding numbers grabbing my attention.

1 for every 100,000. 

In the Diocese of Charleston, there are currently four paid leaders who work with the Hispanic youth – 400,000 in total.  Although the Catholic population is growing rapidly, due in large part to the growth of the youthful Hispanic community, Catholics still comprise only five percent of the population.  Catholic Extension is discussing how we can help the diocese get more youth leaders for the Hispanic community.  “If we don’t get on board to do something, we can wave goodbye to them,” said Jerry, the diocesan director of youth and young adults.

Sr. Susan

Sr. Susan of St. Cyprian in Georgetown, SC proudly shows the kitchen out of which 23,000 meals a year are provided to the hungry.


This is the number of parishioners Sister Sandra of St. Cyprian in Georgetown, South Carolina, has single-handedly cultivated.  She is in charge of ministering to the Hispanics in her parish, and there are no clergy or other religious sisters in the area to help her out.  “What is your secret to success?” I asked Sr. Sandra, who operates out of an office located in a windowless storage unit where the roof is leaking and the carpet perfumed with mildew.  “We just try to help people see how essential our faith is,” she said.  From October to December Sister Sandra organizes 46 straight nights of prayer—a traveling novena which involves thousands of participants.  Each night it’s held in a unique home with food and festivities.  Her determination, unlike her facilities and equipment, remains intact.

Over 2,000. 

This is the number of volunteers that Sr. Susan, a daughter of Charity at St. Cyprian, coordinates on an annual basis.  Volunteers are Catholic and non-Catholic and they come from all over the county to work in one of the four non-profits operating out of the parish.  Together they assist 305 women in crisis pregnancies; teach English as a second language classes; reach out to those living with HIV/AIDS; serve 23,000 meals a year in their soup kitchen and provide clothing, medicine and emergency utility assistance to the poor.  It’s a huge and inspiring effort.   “Parishioners are involved in everything we do,” said Sr. Susan, who talks fast, indicative of the fact that she has a lot on her mind.  Catholic Extension is exploring opportunities to support St. Cyprian as it works to grow even more.

Mary Lou

Mary Lou, a Catholic who works at one of non-profits operating out of St. Cyprian, points to pictures of the many healthy infants and toddlers whose well-being can be attributed to work of this organization.


This is the total number of staff at Holy Family parish in Metter, Georgia.  She is a woman religious named Sr. Mary, and her salary is supported by Catholic Extension.  Sr. Mary is responsible for managing the activities of this church, which include a robust religious education program, a food pantry, clothing assistance, and migrant outreach.  It is the only Catholic church in the county.  “We love Sister Mary,” said Carol, a long-time parishioner and volunteer. “I’ve watched this church grow and I want that level of person for my grandchildren.”

3 days. 

This is the minimum number of days each week Mrs. “Lala” volunteers at her local church of St. Rose of Lima in rural Baxley, Georgia, which is supported by Catholic Extension with a small operating grant.   And it’s not as if she has nothing better to do with her time.  She is the mother of two boys and she owns a “pine straw” business that employs 25.  “My faith is the most important thing in my life,” she remarked.  Mrs. “Lala” teaches religious education to 40 children, runs the youth group for 30 teens and young adults, and organizes various other activities for this mission parish of 120 families.  Her tireless efforts are having an impact.  Each year the church continues to grow, and the youth see her as a trusted leader, often calling her to share their hardships and seek advice.


“Lala” is determined to help the young Catholics of her rural community. They face many challenges.

The numbers speak volumes about the progress we’ve made and where we still have a long way to go.  Catholic Extension remains committed to these dioceses to help seize the opportunities before us to ensure the bright future of our Church in the Southeast.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Young Catholics in Youngstown: Bringing New Life to Communities Accustomed to Tragedy

It’s hard not to be intimidated sometimes, or to feel discouraged or fearful about what’s happening in the world.  However, the oft-spoken scriptural adage, “Be not afraid,” is in the forefront of my mind as I return from Youngstown, Ohio.  In 2010, Catholic Extension started supporting this diocese of the Rust Belt.  The commitment came as the diocese was facing great evil in its inner city.

In January of 2010, Angeline, an 80-year-old parishioner of St. Dominic, was fatally shot as she was leaving church in an apparent botched mugging.  In September 2010, tragedy again struck when two 75-year-old parishioners were fired upon 12 times in their car.  Tom, the husband, was killed by a bullet to the head, and Jackie, his wife, was shot in the leg.  Although Jackie survived, part of her leg had to be amputated.  The couple had been “mistaken” for rival gang members.

New Hope

A family member of one of the deceased spreads dirt on a vacant lot to plant seeds that will yield new plants as well as new hope.

Parishioners of this resilient community on Youngstown’s south-side have refused to let these incidents darken their spirits.  They realize that it’s a moment to “be not afraid.”  To support them, Catholic Extension and the Diocese of Youngstown are collaborating on “Project Grow: Planting Hope.”  The project engages community members, parishioners, and teenage Catholic students from across the diocese to restore hope to the neighborhood by cleaning up junk and planting grass and vegetables in lots where drug houses once stood.  While the project will eliminate urban blight, it also serves as a means to engage the diocese’s young Catholics, to teach them the value of service and to help them see Christ in everybody and everywhere, including in these struggling neighborhoods.

Shuttered Factory

A shuttered factory in Youngstown, Ohio

On May 21, with support from Catholic Extension donors, more than 120 young Catholics hit the streets of Youngstown in various locations to take the neighborhoods back.  The evening before their work began, the youth were prepped with prayer by participating in Eucharistic Adoration.  They were instructed to see Christ not only in the chapel but in the streets of Youngstown, and to discover for themselves what it literally means to renew the face of the Earth.

“These young people are a symbol of hope for us,” said Fr, Greg, St. Dominic pastor, who spoke as kids worked around him in the 80-degree sun picking up old liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia from a vacant lot next to the parish, while planting grass seed to create a playing field. “Catholic Extension wants to instill the Catholic faith more deeply and this is what we are doing today,” he added.

Family members of the deceased also were among the workers.  I spoke to the nieces of one of the slain.  “We will not let this violence define us.  But being out here today helps give us some closure,” one said.  More importantly, the family members wanted to “stand with the parish” in its effort to fight back.

Of Service

Teens experience what it’s like to be of service.

John Drummond, a recent graduate of Ohio State University as well as an alum of the Catholic high school down the street from St. Dominic, was in charge of logistics.  “I think this service has taught kids that your community is much larger than the 10 houses on your block,” he noted.  He gives these kids  credit.  “These kids are really inspiring,” said John, who is only in his early 20s.  “This generation gets a bad rap because people assume ‘these kids don’t want to do anything; they just want to play on their iPhones,’ but these kids are working hard.”

What’s the impact of this experience on the kids? You be the judge.

“This teaches us to help your neighbor,” said Taylor, a high school freshman.

“Poverty is not just in other countries, it’s right here in the U.S.” said Taiwana, also a freshman.

“I want to do this again soon,” said Mahia.

Change has to start somewhere.  On May 21 we took a great step forward for inner-city parishioners as well as for young Catholics from across the Diocese of Youngstown.  Catholic Extension will continue supporting the diocese to solidify and grow this hands-on evangelization.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management