The True Jewels of the Diocese

One of the most common questions we are hear from Catholic leaders across the United States is “how can we keep our young people involved and excited about the Church?”  Parishes and dioceses alike are focusing on building youth ministry programs geared to providing youth with spiritual and personal growth alongside Jesus and in their faith communities.  On a recent trip to the Diocese of Helena, I was able to witness a robust youth ministry program that is “connecting the dots” between the parish, diocese and universal Church.

Entrance to "the jewel of the diocese," Legendary Lodge.

Our first stop, often referred to by locals as “the jewel of the diocese,” was Legendary Lodge.  Legendary Lodge is a beautiful campground located on a pristine river valley nestled between seemingly mile-high Montana mountains.  Each summer, nearly 900 youth from the Diocese of Helena travel to the campsite for a unique Catholic experience, unrivaled by most.  The camp is run all summer long with week-long sessions divided by age group.  “It’s a family tradition—many campers have been coming for nine years, just as their siblings did,” said Dan Bartleson, Seasonal Director of Legendary Lodge.

As we were ferried across the river by the head camp cook, sounds of high-school students laughing echoed through the trees.  The evening’s main activity was a game in which camp counselors assumed the personas of characters from various fairy tales, each exemplifying specific virtues and vices.  Campers raced around the grounds in teams working to identify each virtue or vice and complete a task designed to build teamwork.  In fact, this summer’s theme for all Legendary Lodge camp sessions is “virtues,” and the kids love learning about them, no matter what their age.

Legendary Lodge counselors use activities to teach about the virtues.

While the sun set behind the mountains, a campfire was carefully lit by the water’s edge.  Bleachers circled the fire pit and were quickly filled with campers excitedly laughing and talking amongst themselves.  Each night, a camp counselor tells an interesting story or a testimony about their personal faith.  After a few ice-breaking campfire songs, we learned it was Oliver’s night to share his faith testimony, and everyone hushed to listen.

Legendary Lodge Campers

Oliver explained his personal journey and ultimate decision to attend seminary school in the fall at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.  He said that he felt a natural calling to the priesthood during his youth, but “didn’t have friends interested in discussing their faith,” and he put those thoughts on shelf.  When Oliver attended a small Catholic college in Helena, he became immersed in campus ministry, and found many other youths interested and engaged in their Catholic faith. During this time, Oliver was pursuing a career path in medicine; he also hoped to have a family some day.  Throughout this time, he knew he was still interested in the priesthood, but “I was always waiting for my big sign,” he said.

Oliver tells the story of his journey to become a seminarian.

Then, while visiting the Vatican with classmates from college, it happened.  While his close friends knelt down and prayed at St. Peter’s tomb, Oliver stood quietly in the back and felt a great love open from deep within him.  “At that moment, I was overwhelmed with my love for the Eucharist,” he explained through tears.  “It still chokes me up today—I’m getting used to being this emotional when I speak about it.”  Oliver’s overwhelming experience led him to contact Fr. Marc Lenneman, a trusted priest and mentor with whom he spoke with often.  Fr. Marc, who was present at the fire that night, knew Oliver from his college campus ministry and is also the Chaplain at Legendary Lodge.  After prayer and reflection, Oliver fully realized and “opened himself up” to his true calling, the priesthood.  It was not an easy process, but he now feels God’s plan has been fully revealed to him.

After Oliver’s heartfelt story, many others opened up around that very fire and spoke about their hopes, dreams, fears and faith.  Humorous stories and laugher intertwined with the deeply personal and profound.

Fr. Marc Lennemen, Legendary Lodge Chaplain

For the counselors and leaders at Legendary Lodge, it’s their goal that this experience does not leave when camp is over.  They work closely with the Bishop, area priests, youth ministers and parents to ensure the themes and ideas discussed are built upon throughout the year.  Based on the impactful camp experience, parishes are seeing their youth continue church involvement year-round.

The Diocese of Helena’s youth ministry program is truly connecting the dots between small, rural faith communities and the universal Church.  As I drove away from Legendary Lodge in the morning, I could feel the powerful momentum built throughout the diocese by their youth programs.  It seems to me very likely that tomorrow’s leaders of the Church are being cultivated in Montana.  And those young leaders, are the true jewels of the diocese.

— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications

Needs, Solutions and Impact

Identifying the needs of Catholic communities, developing solutions that address those needs and measuring the impact of our work and our donors’ gifts – these are among the many services Catholic Extension provides to the Church in the U.S.   On a recent trip to Little Rock, I met leaders from 23 of the 86 “mission dioceses” supported by Catholic Extension to learn about their emerging needs, understand how we can help and evaluate the strategies that have been successful.

Needs:

I met Fr. Leonardo, director of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Tulsa, OK.  He is solely in charge of the pastoral care of as many as 25,000 Catholics.  He drives 600 miles every weekend to visit the communities he supports.  From now on, I’ll just think of him the next time I’m tempted to complain that my life is hard.  Without a great deal of funding or any support staff, Fr. Leonardo’s efforts are severely limited, especially his efforts to reach out to poor and at-risk youth.  Last December, 400 impoverished young people from his diocese signed up for a potentially life-changing retreat, but because he couldn’t pay for the buses to transport these young people and had no staff to coordinate alternative transportation, he had to cancel.  “I just need someone who can focus all of their attention on these young people who have nothing,” Fr. Leonardo lamented.

I met the dynamic and successful Jesus Abrego, who works with youth in the Diocese of Beaumont, TX.  Just last week, he organized an event which drew thousands of spiritually hungry youth.  However, Abrego fears his efforts are not enough. “We have a rich past that we should celebrate,” he said.  “But, I am concerned about the future. How many of our young people are in jail, pregnant at 16 or addicted to drugs?”  It is his priority to find new and better ways to reach out to those youths.

The experiences of Fr. Leonardo and Jesus Abrego — those of having too big of a task with too little staff and funding — are unfortunately not uncommon experiences in our Church today.

Jesus Abrego, Director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry, Diocese of Beaumont, Texas

Solutions:

Investing in pastoral leaders is a simple and practical solution for our Church.  For more than 100 years, Catholic Extension has been providing salary support for pastoral leaders, and the need for this type of support is greater now more than ever.

Currently, Catholic Extension is proposing a $15 million partnership initiative with other funding organizations and Catholic dioceses, which would provide seed money to help establish 100 new positions for pastoral leaders across the country over the next three years.  These positions would help dynamic leaders like Fr. Leonardo and Jesus Abrego expand the outreach of the Church to the most vulnerable populations.

This initiative was enthusiastically embraced by the 23 diocesan representatives that gathered with me in Little Rock.  The additional leaders will help them engage Catholics on the margins, especially young Catholics.

Impact:

This solution of providing salary support has proven to be effective.  Take, for example, the Diocese of Little Rock, which experienced double-digit growth in its Catholic population over the last 20 years.  Catholic Extension invested heavily in the salaries of pastoral leaders in this diocese.

In the town of DeQueen, in the far southwest corner of Arkansas, Catholic Extension provided salary support to St. Barbara.  When that effort began, there were about 70 Catholics who belonged to the rural parish.  The new pastoral leaders, however, worked hard at building a vibrant faith community, and today the parish has more than 1,500 active Catholics.

Starting this week, Catholic Extension is funding the salaries of pastoral leaders who are moving their ministry across the state from DeQueen to Hamburg, Arkansas.  Currently, Holy Spirit Parish in Hamburg is a small community.  But Msgr. Scott Friend, the Vicar General of the diocese, knows that the area has great potential to grow, and in two to three years time they expect to have a community that rivals the size of the one in DeQueen.

The future is within reach, but we as Catholics are going to have to stretch ourselves to make it there.   What I learned on this trip to Little Rock is that while the needs are profound, there are steps we can take right now to address them and make a lasting difference for so many dedicated Catholics right here in our own country.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Into the Bush Country (Alaska part 3)

Bethel, Alaska, in the Diocese of Fairbanks, is the largest of all 600 Bush villages.  Bethel is a “hub” for planes in and out of the region, serving 56 villages.  It’s a hub because the only way to get in and out of Bethel and the rest of the Bush country is by boat or plane.  Half of the village of Bethel just got indoor plumbing; no cell phone service is available in the entire area.  As opposed to the gorgeous mountains, cascading waterfalls and pristine coast of Valdez, the Bush country is tundra – flat and treeless, with millions of lakes, marshes and mosquitoes- what they call the State Bird of Alaska.

The expansive Bush country in Alaska.

Everyday life is tough and challenging in the Bush country, but these Native Alaskans are a happy and faith-filled people.  They are Yu-pic Americans; Yu-pic meaning “the real people.”  We grew up calling them “Eskimos.”

Many of the people revel in the challenges and take joy and pride in their way of life.  Justin, who is finishing up two years with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp., said he “wanted to come to the Bush Country of Alaska ever since he was a little kid.”  He is discerning the priesthood, and has been leading the youth group for 8th-12th graders.

“Bethel comes alive in the winter,” Justin explained, noting that “snow machining,” ice fishing, dog mushing, cross country skiing, para-skiing and other outdoor activities keep the village going, even in days that reach negative 70 degrees.  “Negative 25 (-25 degrees Fahrenheit) is like summer,” he laughed.  The first snow hit last year on September 29.  It’s so cold in Bethel in winter that pipes are raised above ground – those placed in the ground freeze and crack.

Justin leads a youth group for 8th-12th graders.

Justin is even optimistic when discussing living in the freezing cold in four hours of sunlight, on average each day, in winter.  “I get to see the sunrise and sunset every day,” he noted.  “And the stars, they are ‘planetarium’ clear.  In the summer, it’s so light until so late that you don’t get to see the stars.”

Bethel, like other communities in Alaska, is dealing with serious social issues – high rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, Justin explained.  “We do a lot of counseling,” he said, noting it took six months for the kids to open up to him.  Fr. Chuck Peterson and Susan Murphy, parish administrator of Immaculate Conception Parish, here, are so well-known and respected in the community that much of their time is spent providing counseling.

Immaculate Conception, which was built by Catholic Extension donors, is a hub of activity in the area and it does everything it possibly can to sustain itself.  As we arrive, we view an entire building – one of its former church buildings – filled with tables of paperback and hardcover books, meticulously sorted by type and in alphabetical order.  The book sale took days of sorting to set up, Susan explained.  It looks to me that it would have taken months.  In the next building an entire “rummage” sale is set up, providing more income for the church and clothing and supplies needed by the people.

Fr. Chuck Peterson in Immaculate Conception, a church built by Catholic Extension donors.

Under Fr. Chuck’s direction, Immaculate Conception is a very inclusive parish community, celebrating the cultural heritage of the people with the richness of the faith.  Ten languages are spoken in the parish and for Pentecost Fr. Chuck had parishioners create banners with the “Our Father” in their native tongue.  Thirty line the walls.

Fr. Chuck and the diocese are intent on training the Yu-pic people to take leadership positions in the church and they have successfully embraced a diaconate training program that “blends Roman Catholicism with the gifts of the Native culture.”

Catholicism is strong and vibrant in Bethel, nurtured by caring people who have a great respect for the people they serve.  It is a privilege to witness the church in its many forms, but true to its adoration of the Word and the Eucharist.

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications

Nobody Solves a Problem Like Sr. Marie (Alaska Part 2)

The sheer size of Alaska is hard to wrap your head around, especially when you think of serving the Catholics spread throughout the state.  One estimate is that the Diocese of Juneau stretches 700 miles, roughly the size of Florida.  The Archdiocese of Anchorage is about the size of the state of Montana, covering approximately 139,000 square miles.  And, the Diocese of Fairbanks is approximately one and one-half times the size of the state of Texas, totaling 450,000 square miles.

In Valdez, most travel is "by boat or plane."

Our first stop in the Archdiocese of Anchorage was in Valdez, widely known as the end of the Alaskan pipeline and the “snow capitol of Alaska.”  They mean it: on average they get upwards of 550 inches of snow and a mean black ice that will send the sturdiest parked car down a driveway.  Remember, too, that these folks on average experience four hours of sunlight a day in the winter – roughly from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Upon arrival we met Fr. Frank and Sr. Marie, a dynamite team that make you proud to be a Catholic.  Valdez just got a parish priest after 22 years without one, and Catholic Extension donors are subsidizing his salary, but that statistic shouldn’t lead one to believe that this parish has been limping along.  Sr. Marie, who has been the parish mainstay for 18 years, described Fr. Frank’s arrival as “the cherry on the top of the sundae” they’ve built.

Fr. Frank is assigned to St. Francis Xavier of Valdez as well as another parish 118 miles away.  “Think of it as the closest away game,” he said.

Over a wonderful potluck supper, an international smorgasbord that included such local favorites as moose meatloaf, the parishioners shared stories about their inspiring parish.  “We Catholics stick together with or without a priest,” one parishioner said.  Plus, they added, we’ve had Sr. Marie, who in addition to being the presence of the church, is a mainstay of the community, having served on nearly every board in town and for years as an emergency medical technician (EMT).

St Francis Xavier shares Fr. Frank with another parish 118 miles away.

The parish was founded in 1903, recalled Mary Ellen, a parishioner, when her great-grandmother followed her husband to the area, where he was working in the lumber business.  Not long after arriving, Mary Ellen said, her great-grandmother called the Bishop and said, “We have 10 Catholics here.  Send a priest.”  It took three days for one to arrive from Skagway and St. Francis Xavier was born.

What’s Sr. Marie’s secret to keeping these parishioners involved?  I tell them, she said, that we are all called to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth wherever they are.  Put more succinctly, “I want everybody,” she said in her charming, talkative manner, which makes one think it would be tough to say “no” to one of her requests.

She puts every parishioner on a cleaning list, where they help clean the church one weekend a year.  She blesses the town Christmas tree and their “hogs” (motorcycles).  This year they put Sr. Marie on the back for a short ride after the blessing, earning her a front page photo in the Valdez paper.

“Above the fold,” Sr. boasts about the story’s placement.

She doesn’t make light of the struggles people face living in Valdez: isolation, the cost of living (a gallon of milk can be $12 in parts of Alaska), darkness, the volume of snow, drugs, alcohol and incidents of suicide and sexual abuse.  She estimated that 90 percent of her calls as an EMT were from accidents caused “while making the last booze run of the night.”

“This is beautiful country, but it can be a very violent country at the hands of the people or the terrain,” she added.

Sr. Marie

Sr. Marie builds community the old-fashioned way – she takes everyone in.  When two men arrived at the parish having been turned away from a job they had been promised, she found them jobs washing dishes, a room to sleep in and provided them a meal.  All by nightfall, she joked.

Amidst her many stories, her deep faith emerges and one realizes how powerful her presence is in Valdez.  “If we are not celebrating the Word, sharing Communion, and taking care of those in need, then we are not fulfilling the Word of God on earth and building the body of Christ,” she said.

Sr. Marie will retire this year, but Valdez will remain her home.  When thanking her for all her works, she simply replied, “(Catholic) Extension has been with me since I came to Alaska 40 years ago.”

Coming up: Voyage into the Alaskan Bush Country

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications

Increasing the Number of Catholic Chaplains for Men and Women in Uniform

They hear confessions in far-flung base camps in Afghanistan. They administer the sacraments on Navy destroyers. They travel constantly in combat zones, often saying Mass six or seven times in one weekend.

The work of Catholic chaplains in the U.S. military is far from easy, yet it’s vital work, especially to the more than 250,000 Catholics who are on active duty. But Catholic military chaplains are in short supply, with only 100 priests filling 400 Catholic chaplain spots in the U.S. Army alone.

In an effort to address this shortage, the Archdiocese for the Military Services initiated a program to recruit seminarians from within the military and, together with their home dioceses, pay their educational costs. The program receives support from Catholic Extension, and in just two years has quadrupled in size from seven to 28 seminarians. There have been 500 inquiries from men interested in military chaplaincy.

“These brave military members have already demonstrated attributes of honor, self-discipline, obedience and valor, which are fundamental to the priesthood,” says Father John McLaughlin, Vocations Director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. “Catholic Extension’s funds will make it possible for us to continue promoting priestly vocations from within this incredible group of dedicated men.”

In 2010, Catholic Extension provided a grant of $125,000 to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, to support this essential and successful program.