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Bringing the “Outside” Church “Inside”

“There is a sense of unity in that when we go to Mass, we are going to Mass with you — the entire Church.”

This quote in and of itself may not seem profound for the average Catholic.  We believe that when we go to Mass we are celebrating with our fellow parishioners, as well as with the universal Church.  Nonetheless, when I heard this remark from Frank, I rediscovered its meaning.

Clements Unit houses more that 3,700 Texas inmates.

Clements Unit houses more that 3,700 Texas inmates.

Frank is not your typical Catholic.  He is serving a life sentence at Clements Unit, a prison in Amarillo, Texas, where the average sentence is 65 years.  Despite his separation from the rest of the world, Frank does not feel alone.  He and approximately 1,500 inmates across seven prisons in the Diocese of Amarillo are ministered to by a team of five priests, eight deacons and 18 lay volunteers who devote their time to bringing the “outside” Church to the “inside.”

During a recent trip to the Diocese of Amarillo, Catholic Extension had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Frank, Wiley and Mike­— three practicing Catholic inmates within the walls of Clements Unit prison.  Each serving a considerable sentence.

Lay volunteer Roy (left) and Deacon Mike (right) minister to hundreds of Catholic inmates in the Diocese of Amarillo.

Lay volunteer Roy (far left) and Deacon Mike (far right) minister to hundreds of Catholic inmates like Frank, Wiley and Mike (left to right).

“We try to do all the same things that you do in all your churches,” Frank stated.  During 2010, the Diocese of Amarillo’s Prison Ministry held 167 Masses and 298 Communion services.  The inmates yearn for the Masses and services and any written materials they can have — including Catholic calendars.  Because prison regulations prohibit spiral-bound materials, every year the wife of one of the prison ministry volunteers removes the spiral bindings from nearly 100 Catholic Extension calendars and carefully rebinds them with yarn.  These calendars help the prisoners follow the Church’s liturgical calendar and are a valued acknowledgement of their faith.  In September, Catholic Extension awarded a $50,000 grant to the Diocese of Amarillo’s Prison Ministry to help sustain it through operational support.

Because priests are stretched thin, inmates and volunteers often gather and lead lay services or simply sing and pray.  Recent policy changes required the “prison parish” to break up into smaller services spread across different sections of the prison.  Though this has created additional strain on the priests, one inmate saw it as an evangelization opportunity.  Celebrating in areas outside of their chapel gives them the chance to reach out to other inmates.  Mike described, “If I can reach someone and tell them they have value, they begin to grow.  As they begin to pray their self-esteem rises and eventually they’ll reach out and bring a friend, too.”

The Diocese of Amarillo's Prison Ministry offers spiritual familiarity in an otherwise isolated environment.

The Diocese of Amarillo's Prison Ministry offers spiritual familiarity in an otherwise isolated environment.

The last question we asked before heading back into the “free world” was, “What would it be like without this prison ministry’s presence in Clements?”  I listened to a few answers about how the Church is a positive, stable and familiar presence in an otherwise gloomy place, I heard these men recount that the Church’s presence makes a tremendous impact on their daily lives, that the guards even at times ask them why they go to Mass and what they get out of it.  Perhaps Wiley’s answer summed it up best. “Can you imagine what this place would be like if we weren’t praying?” he asked.  “Who would even be able to work here?”

— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications, Catholic Extension

Deacons: Servant Leaders, Catholic Heroes

No matter where I travel, the deacons I meet never fail to impress me.  A recent trip to Amarillo, Texas, only added to my already overwhelmingly favorable impression of these dedicated men.  Though they come from all walks of life, they share a common desire to serve the Church, often in very radical ways.  In the 86 “mission dioceses” served by Catholic Extension, deacons are a source of stability and stimulus for the Church.

The 48 deacons spread throughout the geographically vast Diocese of Amarillo help keep Catholic communities strong.

The 48 deacons spread throughout the geographically vast Diocese of Amarillo help keep Catholic communities strong.

One could argue that deacons perhaps play an even more significant role in “mission dioceses,” areas where vast distance, limited financial resources or extreme priest shortages are common challenges.  Luckily, there is no shortage of spirit in these “mission dioceses,” and these deacons, in a very special way, embody that spirited Catholic sensibility that we at Catholic Extension so often encounter.

With 48 deacons, the Diocese of Amarillo has one of the highest deacon-per-capita ratios in the country.  As I traveled across the plains of the Texas panhandle, visiting Catholic Extension-funded ministries, the incredible impact of the deacons was everywhere to be seen.  These deacons are not working in cushy ministries.  Rather, they are in the trenches.

Deacon Jesse, who ministers to prisoners, wears a permanent smile.

Deacon Jesse, who ministers to prisoners, wears a permanent smile.

We accompanied Deacons Mark and Jesse to Clements Unit Prison, where the average inmate’s sentence is 65 years.  They took us inside the prison.  It is a tough place, but the deacons are there to bring hope, dignity, faith and rehabilitation.  They usually spend six days a week in this environment.   I couldn’t help but notice that Deacons Mark and Jesse never shed their smiles during the visit, even when we entered the cell block in the maximum security unit, where the most troubled inmates are housed.  Later, as we passed the “chow hall,” one young man, with a shaved head and tattooed neck, recognized Deacon Jesse.  “Hey man,” the inmate said with delight at the sight of the deacon, “how have you been?”  Deacon Jesse confidently walked over and greeted him with a smile, a warm handshake, and a pat on the back.  “Good to see you,” Deacon Jesse said warmly, “I’ll come around again soon!”

Catholic Extension provides funding to make this ministry possible, and these deacons stretch that support as far as they can, serving thousands of inmates throughout the diocese each year.  They shared many stories of conversion and reconciliation, which are undoubtedly the direct result of their hard work.

Deacon Wayne has been pivotal in helping the Church grow in the northern most region of the Texas Panhandle.

Deacon Wayne has been pivotal in helping the Church grow in the northern most region of the Texas Panhandle.

An hour’s drive north on a tumble weed-strewn road led us to Sunray, Texas, where we met Deacon Wayne at Christ the King Church.  The mission church was built with Catholic Extension’s support years ago, and it currently receives a small operating grant from Catholic Extension of $1,500 per year to help them make ends meet.  Deacon Wayne has lived in Sunray since 1947 and was a member of the first class of deacons for the diocese.  His dedication has enabled the Catholic community to thrive in this humble, working-class town where agriculture and oil are the primary industries.  Deacon Wayne has witnessed the parish grow from about 13 families to 75 families.  Today, it is a young and still-growing parish, consisting of mostly families, with nearly 100 children in religious education programs.  Deacon Wayne is happy to see that he is one of the few parishioners with gray hair.  He helped keep the parish afloat some years ago when it only had $35 in the bank and was struggling to keep the lights on.  He was a stable presence during the years when there was no regular priest assigned to the parish.  He helped the minority Catholic population gain unprecedented acceptance in Sunray by developing strong relationships with the seven other Christian churches in the town.  Thanks to his steady and friendly presence, the Catholic faith is growing here.  In fact, the faith in Sunray is so strong and the bonds among Catholics so deep that “it goes beyond family,” says Deacon Wayne.

Throughout the years Catholic Extension has helped fund the education and training of hundreds of deacons like Wayne, Jesse and Mark in dioceses across the country.  When I think of all the deacons Catholic Extension has financially supported throughout the country, and consider their many achievements as they strive to anchor the faith community as well as extend it, I realize how fantastically lucrative Catholic Extension’s return on investment has been for the Church.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension

“Driving” Improved Access to Catholic Schools

We arrived at All Saints Catholic School in Richmond, Virginia before 7 a.m..  The parking lot was empty and the sun was just rising.  The principal, Ken Soistman, came out to greet us.  He pointed at a cute little white bus that could hold about twenty kids and said, “That’s the bus.”  He was referring to the transportation that Catholic Extension funded for this semester, so that the Hispanic children whose parents could not drive them to school could start attending All Saints this year.  This is a part of Catholic Extension’s pilot program to better understand how transportation impacts Hispanic participation in schools.  Like many of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Richmond, All Saints had tried to encourage more Hispanic children in the area to come to the Catholic school by offering tuition assistance.  But even financial help could not bring families into the school community.

The Catholic Extension funded school bus ensures Catholic school access for Hispanic children in the Diocese of Richmond..

The Catholic Extension funded school bus ensures Catholic school access for Hispanic children in the Diocese of Richmond.

The fact is that many families simply can’t get their children to school; they only have one car, and parents have to leave for work before school opens.  So now, thanks to this bus, more children are able to come.  The hope is that more Hispanic children will enroll in All Saints Catholic School, as well as many of the other Catholic schools across the Diocese of Richmond.  That is why this bus is on Catholic Extension’s Christmas Wish List; hopefully the bus will be funded by donors for the second half of the year, too.

Dioceses across the country are trying to attract more Hispanic children to Catholic schools.  While over 40% of our country’s Catholics are Hispanic, less than 4% of the children who are in Catholic schools are Hispanic.  Since 2000, more than 1,400 Catholic schools have closed.  If recruitment efforts are successful, more Catholic schools can remain open, and more Catholic Hispanic children will have a chance at an education that will help them build a solid Catholic foundation to guide them through the rest of their lives.

Students on All Saints Catholic School's new school bus.

Students on All Saints Catholic School's new school bus.

In Richmond, they have created the Segura Initiative to recruit more Hispanic children to the Catholic schools. We met Sister Inma Cuest-Ventura, one of the people working on this initiative; she has already had some great success.  In order for this project to be successful, there needs to be people within the school who speak Spanish.  They have also learned how to engage the help of the madrinas, which is Spanish for “godmothers.”  These are the trusted women of the neighborhood, whom others listen to.  One of the madrinas at All Saints, Paulita, not only works at the local parish and has her child in the school, she has offered to translate into Spanish the letters the teachers send home. Paulita’s own son had been unhappy at the local public school; he was ashamed to say that he spoke Spanish because he didn’t want to be different from the other kids.  Now at All Saints, he is not only proud to answer questions in Spanish, but also says that he loves the school because all the other kids are Catholic like him.  This is a big deal in Richmond, where only 3% of the population is Catholic.

Nitzia and her daughter.

Nitzia and her daughter.

Nitzia, another madrina, has two daughters at All Saints in Pre-K and second grade.  Nitzia said that her daughter now insists that they say grace before dinner because “That’s what we do at school.”  Her other daughter doesn’t call it All Saints, she calls it “God’s School.”  In August, as Nitzia was eight months pregnant and getting ready to go into the hospital to deliver her baby, she was running around trying to get her daughters’ uniforms so they could go to All Saints.  Her friends and family told her not to go through all the difficulty of getting her girls to the Catholic school.  She responded, “No, I was doing it for my daughters.  It would be better for them.”

Ken Soitsman, Principal, with some of his students at All Saints Catholic School.

Ken Soistman, Principal, with some of his students at All Saints Catholic School.

Principal Ken explained that it is painful to see some families have to leave All Saints because they can’t afford it.  He said: “For some of the parents and grandparents, I can’t say no. I have a grandparent who comes in and says, ‘Where I live, if I can’t get an option, it’s not a question of the education, it’s a question of whether my child will be alive when they’re sixteen.’  You can’t say no to that.”

We hope that Richmond’s success, due to people like Ken and Sister Inma and the madrinas, can serve as a model for other dioceses.  Our visit to All Saints will help to inform Catholic Extension’s future strategy to build capacity in Catholic schools by helping them fill seats, so that more principals like Ken can say “yes” to those who want to attend Catholic school.

— Terry Witherell, National Representative for Strategic Initiatives, Catholic Extension