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

Advertisements

“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

Surging Church

When I look at the future of the Catholic Church in the United States, I see a Church that is thriving, relevant, unifying, vibrant and youthful.  I know that this statement comes across as slightly controversial, given the narratives that we are accustomed to being fed about the state of Catholicism today.

However, I believe that on a recent trip to Virginia I gathered enough evidence to back up my assertion. You see, that thriving, relevant, unifying, vibrant and youthful Church already exists today.   You just need to know where to find it.  I witness this vibrant Church in the Hispanic community throughout the U.S., and in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, which is home to a quarter-million Hispanic Catholics.  In fact, what’s happening in Richmond is a microcosm of that larger story.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is currently experiencing one of the greatest opportunities of its entire history with the rapid growth of the Hispanic Catholic population everywhere.   Hispanics now account for 35-40 percent of the Catholic population in this country, but among U.S. Catholics under age 25, Hispanics are now the majority.   Hispanic Catholics are a community on the rise, not just in numbers, but in leadership.

Volunteers from Sacred Heart in Richmond, one of the first communities in the U.S. to participate in Catholic Extension’s “Hispanic Lay leadership initiative.”

Volunteers from Sacred Heart in Richmond, one of the first communities in the U.S. to participate in Catholic Extension’s “Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative.”

To help capitalize on what is truly a gift-wrapped opportunity for U.S. Catholicism to resurge in this country, Catholic Extension has announced a new Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative, which will establish 100 paid lay leaders in the Church throughout the U.S. to help accelerate this resurgence.  The Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative is a matching challenge that will establish new lay leadership positions by providing 50 percent of the salary cost to the participating dioceses for three years to assist in the creation of these full-time positions.

While Hispanics are as much as 40 percent of the U.S. Catholic population, they currently represent only three percent of paid professional leaders in the Church, signifying that there is work to be done in helping the Church develop and incorporate all the gifts and talents that the Hispanic community has to offer.   It is for this reason that Catholic Extension has launched this special leadership initiative and is working with dioceses across the country.  The goal is to place new professional Hispanic leaders in areas where the need for human resources is significant and where the opportunity for making an impact is great.  To date, 49 dioceses have expressed desire to participate in the Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative.  Among the first to express interest was the Diocese of Richmond.

Dr. Arturo Chavez, president and CEO of the Mexican-American Catholic College in San Antonio, told me back in June of this year that “this initiative has the potential to change Hispanic Ministry as we know it.  It is desperately needed.”   So, you can imagine the excitement at Catholic Extension as we begin to see this initiative become a reality in places like Sacred Heart Parish in the city of Richmond, which the local diocese identified as a site for a new regional Hispanic leader.

This particular parish has about 4,500 active parishioners, and serves very under-resourced communities.  In spite of its limited financial capacity, this parish made tremendous gains in recent years to make its presence known in the community and cultivate new leaders. The parish, which reaches Hispanic Catholics living 45 minutes in all directions, has great potential to do much more.

Maria, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, serves her community with great joy and dedication.

Maria, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, serves her community with great joy and dedication.

I met with a room full of parishioners, whose sense of mission and commitment to the faith was as profound and authentic as I’ve ever seen:

“There is no other place that I want to be other than here in the Church.  This place is marvelous,” said Francisco, a parishioner who skips meals so that he can go directly from his job to serve in the Church nightly as a volunteer for many ministries.

“I used to be very depressed…but now that I volunteer for the Church I don’t have time to be depressed anymore,” said one parishioner, who began helping one year ago to educate adults completing their elementary education.

Maria, who works tirelessly for the parish, said it best, “We see how much we’ve done and those results motivate us.  Your help to [to support a new leader] will enable us to do so much more.”

As Catholics, we are indeed living in exciting times, and Catholic Extension is working to maximize the opportunities that are before us.  Catholic Extension is dedicated to its mission – started more than 100 years ago – to continue to listen to the needs and opportunities of the Church and respond with great energy.

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