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

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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

History, Progress, and the Future

I just spent a couple of days in southern Texas in the Diocese of Brownsvillethe most densely Catholic diocese in the nation.  As much as 85% of the population belongs to the Catholic Church, and some estimate that the diocese has tripled in population since 1980. As our group made our way to various parishes along the Rio Grande on the U.S.-Mexico border, I was struck not only by the great legacy that Catholic Extension has in this area, but also the great opportunity we have to do so much more.

We visited St. Eugene, a mission parish located in a residential neighborhood in the city of Brownsville.  In an unexpected presentation from Rev. Timothy W. Paulsen, OMI, he showed us a picture from 1911, of Catholic Extension’s founders standing with a group of Texas missionaries on horseback.  Together, they were celebrating the groundbreaking of the first church in the diocese.  Over the years, with the help of Catholic Extension, the Catholic Church has continued to grow throughout the Valley.

This unassuming mission Church is a force of change in Lopezville.

This unassuming mission church is a force of change in Lopezville.

St. Eugene’s parish, which currently receives small salary subsidies from Catholic Extension, is a microcosm of that larger story of growth.   In the early 1970s, the parish began in a small trailer, where they celebrated Mass and held religious education classes.   The community outgrew the trailer, and in 1990 it built a larger facility with Catholic Extension’s support.  Twenty-one years later, the parish has grown even more, along with its various social outreaches to the neighborhood.  With this continued growth comes the need for a larger church.  Over 1,000 people attend their standing-room-only Masses on Sundays, and more than 400 kids are enrolled in their religious education program.  Though these numbers are great, the parishioners believe they can still reach so many more people.   The purpose of our visit was to learn more about how Catholic Extension can partner with this parish to make the dream for more space and more outreach a reality.

Up the river, we visited parishioners from Immaculate Conception in Lopezville, Texas, a mission where Catholic Extension provides support for ministries to youth and families.  Lopezville is an unincorporated residential area outside of McAllen, Texas.  The church is a small wooden chapel with a charming steeple.  Based on its size, it would be hard to guess that hundreds of people attend Sunday Masses there, and somewhere between 100 and 200 kids receive religious education.

Josefa, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception since 1958, is committed to her church and neighborhood.

Josefa, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception since 1958, is committed to her church and neighborhood.

Father Jerry, the pastor of Immaculate Conception, took us for a tour through the neighborhood.  One couldn’t help but notice the blight: the graffiti; the flimsy trailers precariously stilted atop cinder blocks; the houses falling apart; the crudely erected chain-link fences surrounding each house; the junk strewn about the yards; and the howling dogs on guard duty at each property, suspicious of anyone walking the streets..

Father Jerry worries about the young people in this neighborhood because of the presence of local gangs.  One parishioner, Josefa, who has lived in the area since 1958, worries about the lack of lighting in the neighborhood.  Another parishioner, Elisa, worries about the people around her living in abject poverty—her neighbor, who cares for two bedridden children, is confined to a 10 x 10 room.

A loose dog, prowls the streets of Lopezville.

A loose dog, prowls the streets of Lopezville.

While the problems run deep in Lopezville, so does the Catholic faith and the conviction that something can be done.  Parishioners individually told us about their decades-long commitment to their community.  They continue to have bold visions about how the Church can leverage itself to inspire hope and ignite change in their neighborhood.   While they still have much to accomplish, they have all been encouraged by the progress that they’ve already achieved.  They advocated for a sewage system in the neighborhood and achieved it.  They asked for a greater police presence and achieved it.  They helped many young people go on to live successful lives because the Church gave them purpose, values and community.

Juan, a native of Lopezville, and parishioner of Immaculate Conception Mission.

Juan, a native of Lopezville, and parishioner of Immaculate Conception Mission.

One parishioner, Juan José, who now works for the Hidalgo county sheriff, said that he and his peers are the tangible results that have come from Immaculate Conception.  As a young person, the realities of his neighborhood were inescapable.  He recalled witnessing a shooting.  Yet he says that he and his peers, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended the parish felt the goodness of this Church, and it stayed inside them.

The people of the Diocese of Brownsville see firsthand what the transformative power of faith in the community can do in people’s lives, and they continue to be emboldened to ignite change and do great things.

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

A Church with Nothing, Has it All.

“This is what Church is really about,” Father Jack Wall commented to me, as a team from Catholic Extension experienced eastern Oklahoma, where the Catholic Church is growing exponentially.

We met with the spirited parishioners of San Juan Diego Mission in Stilwell, Oklahoma, a community that gathers in a simple storage unit, but whose visible desire to live their faith and build a bright future for their children is their most distinguishing characteristic.

Parishioners show their spirit with a song.

The front portion of their rented storage unit serves as their “church,” a place they’ve called home for all nine years of the community’s existence.  The cloth on their donated pews is a retina-burning, bright yellow—worn out hand-me-downs dating back to at least the mid-1970s.   The church retains a musty odor, because when it rains the roof serves as nothing more than a sieve.  Parishioners must celebrate Mass amid buckets to collect the rain water.  In the back of the storage unit—an area that looks akin to my garage—is the parish’s “community and religious education center.”  There is no air conditioning, so parishioners endure the blistering, 100-plus degree Oklahoma summers, as well as the cold winters.

But, cosmetics aside, this church has all the elements needed to be successful: the people have vision, faith, passion, a sense of community, a strong worth ethic and youthfulness.

When the church opened its doors in April 2002, there were only about 23 families gathering for Mass.  Now, not even a decade later, and still without the benefit of a resident priest or adequate physical space, their community has grown to 300 families strong, or about 1,000 people.

Fr. Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, shares pozole with parishioners in their garage-like community center.

On the evening that we visited, parishioners packed into every nook of their humble space, sharing with us a bowl of pozole and some words of welcome.

I noticed the innumerable babies and toddlers, and the throngs of teenagers seated in the church. Antonio Garcia, CCD Coordinator for the parish, stood up and conveyed the ultimate vision they all share for the parish: “Here, our youth and our children are our priority.” 

Parishioners informed us that they are seeking Catholic Extension’s help to develop a peer ministry and faith formation program that will help keep teens close to the Church.  The lure of drugs and a life on the streets are constant dangers that youth and parents often alluded to during our conversation.

Several parishioners shared with us how important their faith was to them, as well as their faith community.  “When one of us suffers, we all suffer,” added one person.

In the future, they also hope to build a church with Catholic Extension’s support, so that they can be a more visible presence in their community.  They’ve been selling tamales and raising money to support their dream of one day having a more dignified place to call home, and have collected about $40,000 to date, a significant accomplishment for this under-resourced community.  Both in the near- and long-terms, Catholic Extension will continue to work through the Diocese of Tulsa to support the youth of this area, and continue the dialogue about their need for physical space.

Parish teens show their pride with their uniformed look. They express desire to stay close to the Church.

After we left Stilwell, I made this realization: no matter how many communities I visit, I never cease to be amazed by the deep faith and level of commitment of the Catholics that I encounter.  I marvel at how those with so little on the surface are really so incredibly rich.

The courageous people of Stilwell can teach something to the rest of the Church about what it means to be a Catholic.  They teach that the gift of faith is truly the only gift that we actually need.  That faith enables us to do all things passionately, practically, and with great perseverance.  The Catholic community of Stillwell should give us all hope for the future, because they teach that no obstacle is too great for people who stand ready to live their faith and answer the call to serve.

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

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

Big Hearts in the Heartland

“Go Big or Go Home” is an expression that immediately comes to mind after my recent visit to the Heartland.  Catholics in this region “go big” in many ways; they also “think big” and “pray big.”  I left there with plenty of reasons to be amazed.

During the renovation, this little “prairie gothic” was lifted off the ground to enable the creation of a basement.

I visited Unionville, a town of 2,000 tucked away in the gentle hills of northern Missouri, about 15 miles south of the Iowa border.  The local Catholic mission, St. Mary, has been around for a century and a half and is preparing for the next 100 years.  Just last year Catholic Extension donors helped this mission parish renovate its church.  With a $48,000 grant from Catholic Extension, parishioners were able to completely rehab their aging “prairie gothic” church, which had been built in the mid 1800s, a testament to the longevity of this faith community.  They jacked up the little white church on stilts to replace all of the corroded floor joists and then tunneled through sheet rock and dirt to create a finished basement for a religious education center, kitchen and parish hall.  They tightened the bowed walls of the church as much as five inches, and tore out and replaced all the old plaster and the drop ceiling.  It sounds like a big, complicated and expensive project.  Would you have guessed, though, that they pulled all this off for a mere $100,000?

Local parishioners, who have expertise in construction, lent their time to the project to cut costs.  Some spent as many as five hours a day, seven days a week for a solid six months.  These dedicated souls got local youth and children involved, and even recruited a few non-Catholics who were willing to help.

Parishioners show us the results of their work and Catholic Extension’s grant. The church was rededicated by Bishop Gaydos in October of 2010.

“The purpose of this project was not just to fix the church,” said Gene Brummer, who led the team.  ”The purpose was to get everyone involved and help them see that this is their church.”  Being a small mission, with no full-time staff and a priest who drives two and half hours to celebrate Mass, the parishioners realize they must be hands-on.

Spirituality in these parts is simple but profound:  “What matters here is what’s in your heart,” said Gene.  For the parishioners of St. Mary’s, action demonstrates what’s in the heart.

About an hour away from Unionville is Kirskville, home to Truman State University.  Approximately 5,000 students attend Truman State,  1,500 of whom are Catholics.  In 2007, the campus ministry center burned to the ground after being struck by lightning.  With a little bit of help from Catholic Extension and a whole lot of determination on their part, the campus ministry has rebuilt a state-of -the-art facility.  They have new staff in place and the campus is teeming and popping with energy.

The local campus ministry would make any Catholic smile with pride and hope for the future.   As many as 800 students participate in some way in campus ministry, an impressive statistic for a state school.  The caliber of the students says it all:

“It’s really an awesome privilege to have access to a chapel twenty-four hours a day,” said Ashley, a prayerful and well-spoken sophomore who is a leader of many campus ministry activities.  She wants to work in graphic design and advertising after graduation so that she can be an ethical voice in an industry, which in her opinion, “too often appeals to people’s weaknesses and not their strengths.”

“I plan to apply for the seminary to pursue priesthood after graduation,” said Joe, a junior from southern Missouri.  He explains that the Newman Center has played a pivotal role in affirming that decision.  “There’s such a strong faith community here,” he said.

Students sing and pray in the chapel at the Newman Center, beneath the tabernacle as well as the wooden crucifix that survived the 2007 fire.

As I travel the country, I see that great things come from ordinary, small-town folk who “go big.”  Their work reminds me of how our faith tradition is scripted, a faith in which fisherman, shepherds, and a carpenter shed light on who God is and all that He is capable of doing.

— 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