Living Lessons in Ecumenism

Some people theorize about ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, and other people live it every day.

St. Ann Parish in rural Kingstree, South Carolina.

St. Ann Parish in rural Kingstree, South Carolina.

I had a chance to visit St. Ann Catholic Parish located in a rural Kingstree, South Carolina.  St. Ann is an old Jewish synagogue that the local Catholics purchased and renovated slightly in 2004 with support from Catholic Extension.  The renovations included installing a cross, a statue of Mary, a tabernacle and kneelers. Everything else basically remained intact.  Remnants of the church’s previous “owners” abound with Stars of David, Torah scrolls and Menorahs depicted in the stain glass windows and doors.  This physical environment reminds parishioners every Sunday of their common roots with those of the Jewish tradition.

St. Ann Church was formerly a Jewish Synagogue.

St. Ann Church was formerly a Jewish Synagogue.

This small but active parish has had 13 pastors in the past 20 years.  In the 37,000 square-mile-diocese of Charleston, priests are stretched thin, trying to provide sacraments among distant mission communities.  During this time, a group of Felician sisters has given pastoral stability to St. Ann.  They teach religious education, lead choir and care for the church.  In addition to their parish duties, at what they jokingly refer to as the “syna-church,” these religious sisters run an outreach center “across the tracks,” which feeds, educates and clothes more than 4,000 people every year.  They intentionally situated their ministry in an area of town that is notorious for violence, drugs and alcoholism.

Catholics are less than 5 percent of the population in this area, so to accomplish their ambitious mission of serving the many who are poor and disadvantaged, the sisters partner with various local Protestant churches.  Sixty regular volunteers from different races, faith denominations and walks of life come together to serve through the Felician Center.

The Felician Sisters work with community members and volunteers.

The Felician Sisters work with community members and volunteers.

One volunteer, Jean, who identified herself as Presbyterian, says that the sisters give Christians in the area the opportunity to fulfill what God is calling us all to do by encouraging people to get out of their comfort zones and go to the other side of the tracks to serve those in need.

I met another volunteer, Ed, an energetic 90-year-old Catholic parishioner from St. Ann. He told us that each Sunday he goes to Catholic Mass at 8:30 a.m., while his wife attends service at her Presbyterian church at 11 a.m.  But when it comes time to work with the sisters, Christian unity prevails.  For 20 continuous years, they have been tutoring kids and serving meals at the Felician Center and are amazed and proud to see how the ministry has grown.

It’s no surprise that these Felician sisters are among Catholic Extension’s 12 Lumen Christi Award finalists for 2012.  The nomination, which came to us from the bishop of the Charleston diocese and the people of South Carolina, recognizes that something truly special is happening here.

The Sisters bring joy to a struggling community.

The Sisters bring joy to a struggling community.

Sisters Susanne and Johnna have had a presence in the area for two decades, and together with the broader Christian community, they are helping transform a very poor area.  A quick check of the U.S. Census Bureau statistics sadly confirms that Kingstree is located in one of the poorest counties of South Carolina and in one of the poorest states in the nation. But this is precisely the kind of place where you so often find the Church at its best, where people collectively rise to the challenge.

In Kingstree, people of faith are changing culture, social paradigms, and ultimately, minds and hearts.  To do this, they are focusing on what unites them and not what divides them.

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

Keeping our Traditions Alive

I spent Good Friday in Lenoir, NC, located near the eastern edge the Appalachian Mountain range.  Catholic Extension supports a parish there called St. Francis of Assisi, which has experienced extraordinary growth in the last three years.  During that short span of time, Sunday Mass attendance has more than tripled; religious education enrollments are five times more than what they were just three years ago; and as many as 70 lay leaders are taking on various ministries that serve the parish and the larger community.  If you’re like me, you wouldn’t normally expect to find such a thriving Catholic community in a relatively small town of North Carolina.  But, something special is happening here.

Parishioners of all ages gather early to witness the traditional "living" Stations of the Cross.

The parish’s leaders, Father Julio Dominguez and Sister Joan Pearson, who arrived here three years ago, are both innovative people constantly thinking of new ways for this church community to reach more people and create new leaders.   Although they are always ready to try new things to make the Catholic faith speak to people, I quickly learned that their secret to success has been as much about getting back to the basics of the Catholic tradition and incorporating customs that have proven to sustain the faith for centuries.

That is why parishioners in Lenoir spent more than three months preparing for a “living” Stations of the Cross, which was open to the entire community on Good Friday.  Sister Joan expected attendance to jump this year, and sure enough, 600 people showed up for this mid-weekday Stations of the Cross.  Given that the church only seats about 300 people, the Stations of the Cross had to be done outside.  To enhance the experience, parishioners act out the scenes of each of the 14 stations in full costume and are accompanied by music and brief reflections.

The crowd drops to their knees, moved by the power of the 11th Station of the Cross.

At the 11th station, as the cross and the actor playing Christ were physically lifted up by the Roman soldiers and placed in the ground for crucifixion, I heard a collective gasp sweep through the hundreds of people as they came to their knees on the grass.  Tears filled the eyes of many, as they reflected upon God’s love expressed through the cross and how that cross has been part of all of our lives.

What impressed me the most about this experience, however, was the endless sea of toddlers, children and teens who were present at this event.  Just as the Stations of the Cross were starting, I happened to turn around to see a steady stream of parents pushing strollers across the Church parking lot as they made their way to the stations.   It felt as if they were literally carting in the next generation of Catholics to hear the same stories that our ancestors told.

Traditions like the "living" Stations of the Cross engage the parish youth in a compelling and inspiring way.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the afternoon was when a young boy, no more than five years old, broke ranks with the rest of us and wove his way through the actors to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he was being taken down from the cross.  The boy reached out and tenderly touched the lifeless feet the Jesus.  I have a feeling that for years to come that boy will remember his brief encounter with Christ this Good Friday.

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

A New Church for St. Mary Presentation

Each year, nearly 100 parishes in the United States receive Catholic Extension funding to make critical facility improvements.

St. Mary Presentation Parish in Deer Park, Washington, recently celebrated the one year anniversary of their new church.  Watch the video below to see how a $50,000 grant from Catholic Extension helped this parish build a new church to accommodate their thriving faith community in the Diocese of Spokane.


To help support Catholic communities like St. Mary Presentation, please consider making a gift today.

— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications, Catholic Extension

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

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

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