Prisons, Ports, and Payless: Jesus visits the bayou.

David Smith casually chats and distribute pamphlets to two passersby at the “Ministry at the Mall.”

If Jesus were to visit Southern Louisiana, like we did last week, I think we’d find him showing up in some unlikely places. Thanks to some interesting ministries and innovative leaders supported by Catholic Extension throughout the bayou region, the notion that “Jesus meets people where they are” is taking on a whole new meaning.

Take for example, the kiosk sponsored by the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux at the Southland Mall in Houma, an oasis of Catholic freebies and educational material in an ocean of frenzied shopping. Located just outside of The Limited and a Payless shoe store, the kiosk has been staffed daily since November 1st by employees of the diocese and volunteers from the Catholic community. The vision for it belongs to Bishop Sam Jacobs who tapped Nancy and Dave Smith to organize daily volunteers, telling them “If Jesus came to Houma today, he’d go straight for the mall.” Bishop Jacobs himself is a regular at the kiosk who, according to David Smith, is a natural “mall minister”.

“This is his brainchild.  He comes out about twice a week, stays an hour or so and reaches out to everybody.  It’s amazing!” he said. In fact, it was Bishop Jacobs who encouraged us to visit the kiosk. We found it to be an exciting expression of the diocese’s commitment to evangelization along the same lines of the many programs Catholic Extension supports in Houma-Thibodaux, like the committed team of Hispanic volunteers we met at Sacred Heart Church in Cut Off, ably-organized by Sister Marta Perez, M.G.Sp.S., and Fr. Jerod Duet.

David and Nancy Smith stand proudly outside the kiosk sponsored by the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux at the Southland Mall in Houma, Louisiana, where they serve as volunteers to reach out to the community.

From the mall in Houma to the prisons in Lafayette, “meeting people where they are” takes a decidedly different shape.  In the Diocese of Lafayette, Jesus is showing up in the lives of those in prison and those hurt by the imprisoned.  Through the diocese’s Prison Ministry and the Survivors of Violence Ministry which are, according to director Ed Boustany, “two bookends of the same story – [serving] the two groups of individuals that are affected by violent acts,” the Church is a compassionate presence in some of the most heart-breaking situations in people’s lives, offering counseling to violence survivors and spiritual guidance and sacramental ministry for those in jail.

“There’s something about the power of the presence of the [Blessed Sacrament] that really affects these men,” Boustany says about the prisoners he leads communion services for. “They realize that it’s going to be something beyond them that’s going to save them. It comes from faith. It comes from that surrender to God when they can’t seem to surrender to anything else. And that’s where I think we make the difference…That’s what I see leads these men to change.”

The diocese’s presence in their life doesn’t end when they get out of prison, either.  Boustany coordinates parishes’ efforts to reach out to the recently released. He says many former inmates who were accompanied by the prison ministry while in jail now serve as volunteer mentors for those who remain.  He feels blessed by the dozens of volunteers who make themselves available to share their faith often under trying conditions and with little acknowledgement.

Deacon Lapoint, center, visits with Brian Hole, left, and Neil Dews of Seattle, Washington who spend time at the Seafarer’s center while awaiting work for their tugboat docked in the Port of Lake Charles.

Making his way west from Houma, past Lafayette, Jesus would very likely end up where we did among the docks and ship yards of the Port of Lake Charles. That’s where we met Deacon Patrick Lapoint who directs the Lake Charles Seafarer’s Center on behalf of the Diocese of Lake Charles. The center is the local outpost of an international network of chaplaincies dedicated to the unique lifestyle of sailors. The needs of sailors who often spend nine months or more away from home are often simple and straightforward, remedied by the nightly shuttle to a local mall or movie theater. But sometimes, Deacon Lapoint becomes a seaman’s only advocate in the face of unjust working conditions or personal emergencies.  More often, his is the only welcoming face that greets a sailor in an unfamiliar port thousands of miles from home.

In each case, and much like the places we witnessed throughout Southern Louisiana, Deacon Lapoint is the Church in its fullest expression of Jesus’ mission: present on the side of the forgotten and too-often overlooked, patiently and lovingly accompanying those whose lives are eclipsed by the immediate demands of the tragic and the mundane, providing the sure hand of welcome and assistance on their journeys.

Boats in the port of Lake Charles.

How has the Church been present to you in a time of need? How has Jesus met you where you are?

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants

For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Frank on Twitter.

The saints of the San Solano Mission

St. Catherine’s Church in Topowa, AZ.

A few weeks ago we visited the San Solano Missions located in the tribal lands of the Tohono O’Odham Nation southwest of Tucson. Our short visit was hosted by Fr. Ponchie Vásquez, O.F.M., one of two Franciscan friars whose salaries Catholic Extension supports.  Together with his Franciscan brother Fr. Ignatius DeGroot, O.F.M., Fr. Ponchie is charged with the pastoral care of those living in some three  dozen villages spread out across territory roughly the size of Connecticut. Nearly every village has its own chapel or sacred space, rising up from the sparse desert floor like the countless century-old Saguaro cacti that surround them.  Each, along with an adjacent feast house, is the heart of its spiritual and social life.

Fr. Ponchie Vásquez, one of the Franciscan friars supported by Catholic Extension, smiles proudly in front of St. Catherine’s Chapel.

When we sat with a half dozen residents of the village of South Komlic (don’t try finding it on the map) in one of the simple – and aging – chapels that dot the vast expanse of borderland, we heard the stories of generations of families connected to the land and to the Church through sacred spaces like the one we were sitting in. Stories like those of Jennie Urbina, whose grandmother grew up in South Komlic and remembers her hosting the priest each Sunday after Mass for lunch.

“The Church was part of their life, and part of my life.  It is a special place to come for encouragement, emotionally and spiritually.  We’re all related.  This is my home and these are my family,” Jennie explained about her neighbors sitting around her.

For Louis Norris, the chapel is the place where the past, present and future meet.

“We honor the saints here, the same way we honor each other,” he reflected. Honoring his neighbors does not stop at the chapel door for Louis.  He assists Fr. Ponchie by taking communion to the elderly. He was visiting 21 or 22 men and women the last time he counted.  His outreach is simple but profound. “I’m connected to them and inspired by what they say.  And I keep it in my heart and then give it back here, the church.”

The patronal feast day of each village is the pinnacle of Catholic life here. Most villages will host a big feast day celebration every other year to honor the saint to whom their chapel is dedicated.  Sitting in St. Jude’s humble chapel in South Komlic, no bigger than 400 square feet and home to more than six decades of sacred liturgies and community gatherings, I began to understand the deep connection this unique community has to each of its chapels and the significance of Catholic Extension’s support.

“The people believe that the chapel is literally the home of the saint. That’s where they live,” Fr. Ponchie explained. He described how on feast days everyone brings the statue of the saint they keep in their home to the chapel for the celebration. On those special occasions, the chapel will be filled with saints.

While we had missed St. Jude’s celebration by just a few days and all of the statues of him and his friends had made their way back to places of honor in the homes nearby, a few saints still remained – the living saints of St. Jude’s Chapel – faithful men and women like Fr. Ponchie, Louis, Jennie and their neighbors, whose collective memory and daily commitments keep the Catholic faith alive for the people of the San Solano Missions.

Who are the saints that keep the faith alive in your community?

Louis Norris (far left), who assists Fr. Ponchie by taking communion to the elderly, stands together with his Catholic family outside St. Jude’s.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants

For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Frank on Twitter.

450 miles through Texas

Last month saw the Catholic Extension team visiting our friends in the Dioceses of Tyler and Beaumont. The 450-mile trip started at DFW airport and would end about 48 hours later as my weary colleagues boarded their flight bound for Chicago. What we witnessed between airport runs would leave all of us grateful once again for the privilege of serving the Church off the beaten path. Here’s a quick sketch of the places we visited. Later, I’ll post some more in-depth stories to highlight what we encountered.

Tuesday (October 19th):

  • Lunch with one of the “two lungs” of the Diocese of Tyler: deacons, kicked off by a surprise visit by Bishop Alvarado Corrada.
  • St. William of Vercelli in Carthage for a walk-through of a new parish activity center 17 years in the making conceived as a blessing not only to local Catholics but the entire hurricane-weary region.
  • Last stop: Mass and laughs with Catholic Lumberjacks. That is ,the student leaders of the Catholic community at Stephen. F Austin State University in Nacogdoches, a lively and warm bunch that is proud of their burgeoning community.

Wednesday (October 20th):

  • After a long drive Tuesday night to Beaumont, we were treated to a delicious breakfast with Bishop Guillory at a local favorite, Carmela’s Mexican Restaurant.
  • Some downtime gawking at the interior of the beautiful St. Anthony’s Cathedral  convinced me that it was the perfect home of a Catholic community, rich in faith and history, ready to share its gifts with the entire region.
  • Meetings with talented diocesan staff, old, new and retired, were informative and tipped me off to the breadth and complexity of pastoral needs the Church must respond to with hope and creativity.
  • Last stop, the remarkable young leaders of Cristo Rey Parish – including one 89 years young  – who introduced us to the “new Juan Diegos”.

More on , at least, some of these to come.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants Management
Follow Frank on Twitter.

“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Phillip replied, “Come and see.”

Fr. Jack Wall, our president at Catholic Extension, likes quoting this exchange between Nathanael and Philip from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. After three months working at Catholic Extension, I finally understand why.

Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Being part of Catholic Extension’s mission is a distinct privilege.  We see the work of God alive in some of the most remote corners of the United States, cities and towns most have never heard of. Our mission is to strengthen the Church’s life and work in hundreds of places that, at first glance, beg the question: Can any good thing come out Elberta, Utah or Cleveland, Texas or Browning, Montana? These are places where the faith of its residents is abundant, but often the resources they have are not. In these places, live people whose hope – rooted in their love of God and each other – buffers the temptation to become overwhelmed by poverty and isolation. These are people who are committed each day to work for change and a future that reflects the richness of their giftedness and diverse strengths.

In each of these places, the Catholic Church walks alongside the people, ensuring that their faith is being nourished by their communion with God, among one other and with other Catholics around the country and the world. Catholic Extension exists to sustain, strengthen and transform the Church in every single one of these places throughout the U.S.

Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants Management

Catholic Extension is often referred to as the “best kept secret in the Church.”  The only thing I knew about it was that it produces calendars – the kind of calendars my grandmother may have once hung in our kitchen when I was growing up. I had no idea of Catholic Extension’s unique century-old mission which now – thanks to Fr. Jack and many others new to the cause like me – in the process of getting a major refresh and update. It has been literally out with the typewriters, in with the laptops. That’s where this blog comes in.

As part of the Grants Management team at Catholic Extension, each month Joe Boland, my Grants Management colleague, and I are privileged to lead visits by our staff to the places we serve. We go to hear stories and meet the people whose faith is transforming their lives and the lives of those around them. We go to meet the Church leaders who are dedicating their lives to inspire hope and work for change. It is their stories that compel us to renew our promise each day at Catholic Extension to help our Church grow and flourish, along with its people, in some of our country’s most forgotten corners.

At the end of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Nathanael, having taken Philip’s advice to “come and see” meets Jesus face to face for the first time. It doesn’t take long before Nathanael proclaims that Jesus is King of Israel and the Son of God. Jesus reply to him: “You will see greater things than these.”

Our hope is to convey the stories of what we “see” in the Nazareths of our nation. And, like Nathanael, become witnesses to what God is up to in these places. To paraphrase Jesus’ response: We ain’t seen nothing yet.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants Management

Frank & Joe will contribute on a monthly basis to the Catholic Extension blog, documenting and reflecting on the compelling stories and inspiring people Catholic Extension helps along the way.

Join us on the journey!  Follow Joe & Frank on Twitter.