We’ve Moved!

The Catholic Extension Blog has moved to our brand new website. It can be found by visiting www.catholicextension.org/blog. We hope to see you there – where we will continue to share inspiring stories of faith from across the United States.

www.catholicextension.org/blog

The new Catholic Extension Blog!

“At all times preach the gospel. And when necessary, use words.”

St. Gianna’s Maternity Home, in North Dakota, seems to bring to life these words, attributed to St. Francis. There are only 60 people in the tiny village of Warsaw. Many would say that it’s in the middle of nowhere. Yet for ten years, pregnant women have come to Warsaw, to find a beautiful, welcoming place where they receive the support they need, to have their babies.

Catholic Extension recently visited St. Gianna’s Maternity Home, as part of a visit to the Diocese of Fargo. Thanks to a generous donation from the Hunckler Foundation, Catholic Extension supports the work of St. Gianna’s, including helping to pay their heating bills during the long North Dakota winters, and procuring a used van to transport the mothers to doctor’s appointments.

St. Gianna’s Maternity Home, in the village of Warsaw in North Dakota.

St. Gianna’s Maternity Home, in the village of Warsaw in North Dakota.

Ten years ago, St. Gianna’s was an abandoned school building. Mary Pat Jahner, their Director who welcomed us and gave us a tour, said that there was graffiti on the walls, broken windows, and even birds flying through the building. It takes a lot of vision, but also faith and commitment, to be able to see the possibilities when things are in that condition; but that’s exactly what Mary Pat, and the hundreds of volunteers who worked tirelessly to fix it up, had. Now it’s a home; warm and inviting, with high ceilings, and tall windows which bring in a lot of light.

“This is a peaceful place”, said Julia, who is 21 weeks pregnant and had only recently come to St. Gianna’s. The other women nodded in agreement; they were gathered to sit down and talk with us. Added Kate, “It’s tough when you first come; you’re not allowed to use cell phones, so that you can escape from the ‘drama’ back home.”

Mary Pat Jahner, the Director, and Fr. Joseph Christensen, FMI; with some of the women from St. Gianna’s.

Mary Pat Jahner, the Director, and Fr. Joseph Christensen, FMI; with some of the women from St. Gianna’s.

Kate, who is the proud mother of Domenic, age 3, told us: “I was a wild teen.” She is from Wyoming; but when she found out she was pregnant, she said she needed to get out, to have a fresh start. Kate loved living at St. Gianna’s. She said that they are “like a family”. She stayed with her “family” at St. Gianna’s until Domenic turned two. She still lives nearby, and comes back often to visit.

Each of the women who talked with us, told us that not only had they received the love and support and resources they needed from St. Gianna’s, but that their faith had grown while there. There is a quiet chapel in St. Gianna’s, where everyone gathers to pray each night. And Fr. Joseph Christensen, who lives across the street, often comes to say Mass for everyone.

Domenic, age 3; and Kate, his mother.

Domenic, age 3; and Kate, his mother.

We asked the women what might have happened if they didn’t have St. Gianna’s. They told us that they might not have had their baby. And if they had, they know they would have raised the baby in an environment that was unhealthy. While at St. Gianna’s they learn not only how to care for their baby, but also the necessary parenting skills.

One of the early benefactors of St. Gianna’s had said that if one baby was born there, then it was all worth it. Since St. Gianna’s Maternity Home opened its doors ten years ago, 73 babies have been born. Mary Pat told us that about a quarter of the babies are adopted; the rest remain with their mothers.

That’s faith in action, and Catholic Extension is happy to be a part of that.

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

A Sign of Hope: Proyecto Desarrollo Humano

Often in life we meet people who tell us why something can’t be done. On October 3rd, we met a woman who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “can’t.”

Sister Carolyn Kosub, ICM, truly believes that with God, all things are possible.

Sisters Mary Catherine (left) and Carolyn Kosub (right).

Sisters Mary Catherine (left) and Carolyn Kosub (right).

On Catholic Extension’s recent trip to the Diocese of Brownsville in Texas, we stopped in the city of Penitas to visit with some Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The group of sisters has established Proyecto Desarrollo Humano, which translates to “The Human Development Project.” We were there to not only witness their amazing work, but also to give them a gift from the first grade class of St. Francis Xavier Warde School in Chicago: a check for $3,800, money the students raised through their own efforts.

Brownsville, the southernmost diocese in Texas, is on the Gulf of Mexico at the Mexican border. Of the over one million people in the diocese, 85% are Catholic. There is only one priest for every 9,000 Catholics! Many parishes have one or more mission churches; so priests celebrate Mass each Sunday in three or four different churches. Despite the lack of priests, every person we talked to said they were grateful for their priest.

Staff and volunteers at El Proyecto Desarrollo Humano with the donation the first grade class of The St. Francis Xavier Warde School in Chicago.

Staff and volunteers at Proyecto Desarrollo Humano accept a donation from the first grade class of St. Francis Xavier Warde School in Chicago.

Proyecto Desarrollo Humano is located in a poor neighborhood known as a colonia. Many colonias are destitute, with tiny makeshift houses built on cinderblocks and in disrepair. Yet when we pulled up to Proyecto Desarrollo Humano, we found a beautiful, bright yellow building. It was a sign of hope in the middle of the colonia.

Before Sister Carolyn gave us a tour of the facility, she told us the story of how Proyecto began. Years earlier, while she and some other sisters were working in nearby parishes, they had a dream of “combining their forces” and together serving a new community in need. They sent one of the sisters to travel around the country for a year and search for the perfect place for them to start their ministry. She chose Penitas. When they started the Proyecto, they spent days walking around the colonia, talking to the people to find out what services they needed most.

In 2004 they built the front part of their building, a large hall with a kitchen. In the beginning, this hall was used for everything: classes, meetings, social gatherings and even Sunday Mass. A few years later the building was expanded to provide much more space. When we arrived, a group of women from the neighborhood were finishing an exercise class. Sister Carolyn said that obesity is a real issue in the community; so in addition to exercise classes, they offer nutrition classes and have started a community garden project so people can grow their own vegetables.

Sister Pat McGraw teaches ESL classes.

Sister Pat McGraw teaches ESL classes.

In fact, much of the sisters’ work is centered around empowering the women of the community. The facility has a sewing room, where women not only learn to sew their own clothes and things they need for their homes, but also spend time talking and supporting one another. These efforts are paying off.  Sister Carolyn said that she has “noticed the women standing taller and holding their heads up.”

When the sisters asked the people of the community what they needed most, they said: “Please help our children with their school work.” In response, the sisters added a computer room for children to do their homework, and tutoring in the afternoons. English Second Language (ESL) classes are also offered for the adults.

Doctors and dentists regularly volunteer their time at the free clinic.

Doctors and dentists regularly volunteer their time at the clinic.

Sister Carolyn was proudest to show us their clinic, a beautiful room in the back of the building that has everything they need to provide medical care for the people of the community. Doctors and dentists volunteer to work on their days off, to care for these people who cannot afford health care. All of these programs have been created since 2004!

Just when we thought we had seen it all, Sister Carolyn took us to see the new church, which was built in 2009. Again, this was what the people of the community wanted: to celebrate Mass in a real church. So once again, with the help of generous donors and people in the community rallying together, the sisters made it happen. We saw a gorgeous mission church, which is already too crowded at Mass and which hosts religious education classes.

It is ministries like Proyecto Desarrollo Humano that Catholic Extension supports. Sister Carolyn and the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary put their faith in action serving those in need, every day.

God is good!

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

Nobody Solves a Problem Like Sr. Marie (Alaska Part 2)

The sheer size of Alaska is hard to wrap your head around, especially when you think of serving the Catholics spread throughout the state.  One estimate is that the Diocese of Juneau stretches 700 miles, roughly the size of Florida.  The Archdiocese of Anchorage is about the size of the state of Montana, covering approximately 139,000 square miles.  And, the Diocese of Fairbanks is approximately one and one-half times the size of the state of Texas, totaling 450,000 square miles.

In Valdez, most travel is "by boat or plane."

Our first stop in the Archdiocese of Anchorage was in Valdez, widely known as the end of the Alaskan pipeline and the “snow capitol of Alaska.”  They mean it: on average they get upwards of 550 inches of snow and a mean black ice that will send the sturdiest parked car down a driveway.  Remember, too, that these folks on average experience four hours of sunlight a day in the winter – roughly from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Upon arrival we met Fr. Frank and Sr. Marie, a dynamite team that make you proud to be a Catholic.  Valdez just got a parish priest after 22 years without one, and Catholic Extension donors are subsidizing his salary, but that statistic shouldn’t lead one to believe that this parish has been limping along.  Sr. Marie, who has been the parish mainstay for 18 years, described Fr. Frank’s arrival as “the cherry on the top of the sundae” they’ve built.

Fr. Frank is assigned to St. Francis Xavier of Valdez as well as another parish 118 miles away.  “Think of it as the closest away game,” he said.

Over a wonderful potluck supper, an international smorgasbord that included such local favorites as moose meatloaf, the parishioners shared stories about their inspiring parish.  “We Catholics stick together with or without a priest,” one parishioner said.  Plus, they added, we’ve had Sr. Marie, who in addition to being the presence of the church, is a mainstay of the community, having served on nearly every board in town and for years as an emergency medical technician (EMT).

St Francis Xavier shares Fr. Frank with another parish 118 miles away.

The parish was founded in 1903, recalled Mary Ellen, a parishioner, when her great-grandmother followed her husband to the area, where he was working in the lumber business.  Not long after arriving, Mary Ellen said, her great-grandmother called the Bishop and said, “We have 10 Catholics here.  Send a priest.”  It took three days for one to arrive from Skagway and St. Francis Xavier was born.

What’s Sr. Marie’s secret to keeping these parishioners involved?  I tell them, she said, that we are all called to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth wherever they are.  Put more succinctly, “I want everybody,” she said in her charming, talkative manner, which makes one think it would be tough to say “no” to one of her requests.

She puts every parishioner on a cleaning list, where they help clean the church one weekend a year.  She blesses the town Christmas tree and their “hogs” (motorcycles).  This year they put Sr. Marie on the back for a short ride after the blessing, earning her a front page photo in the Valdez paper.

“Above the fold,” Sr. boasts about the story’s placement.

She doesn’t make light of the struggles people face living in Valdez: isolation, the cost of living (a gallon of milk can be $12 in parts of Alaska), darkness, the volume of snow, drugs, alcohol and incidents of suicide and sexual abuse.  She estimated that 90 percent of her calls as an EMT were from accidents caused “while making the last booze run of the night.”

“This is beautiful country, but it can be a very violent country at the hands of the people or the terrain,” she added.

Sr. Marie

Sr. Marie builds community the old-fashioned way – she takes everyone in.  When two men arrived at the parish having been turned away from a job they had been promised, she found them jobs washing dishes, a room to sleep in and provided them a meal.  All by nightfall, she joked.

Amidst her many stories, her deep faith emerges and one realizes how powerful her presence is in Valdez.  “If we are not celebrating the Word, sharing Communion, and taking care of those in need, then we are not fulfilling the Word of God on earth and building the body of Christ,” she said.

Sr. Marie will retire this year, but Valdez will remain her home.  When thanking her for all her works, she simply replied, “(Catholic) Extension has been with me since I came to Alaska 40 years ago.”

Coming up: Voyage into the Alaskan Bush Country

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications

Young Catholics in Youngstown: Bringing New Life to Communities Accustomed to Tragedy

It’s hard not to be intimidated sometimes, or to feel discouraged or fearful about what’s happening in the world.  However, the oft-spoken scriptural adage, “Be not afraid,” is in the forefront of my mind as I return from Youngstown, Ohio.  In 2010, Catholic Extension started supporting this diocese of the Rust Belt.  The commitment came as the diocese was facing great evil in its inner city.

In January of 2010, Angeline, an 80-year-old parishioner of St. Dominic, was fatally shot as she was leaving church in an apparent botched mugging.  In September 2010, tragedy again struck when two 75-year-old parishioners were fired upon 12 times in their car.  Tom, the husband, was killed by a bullet to the head, and Jackie, his wife, was shot in the leg.  Although Jackie survived, part of her leg had to be amputated.  The couple had been “mistaken” for rival gang members.

New Hope

A family member of one of the deceased spreads dirt on a vacant lot to plant seeds that will yield new plants as well as new hope.

Parishioners of this resilient community on Youngstown’s south-side have refused to let these incidents darken their spirits.  They realize that it’s a moment to “be not afraid.”  To support them, Catholic Extension and the Diocese of Youngstown are collaborating on “Project Grow: Planting Hope.”  The project engages community members, parishioners, and teenage Catholic students from across the diocese to restore hope to the neighborhood by cleaning up junk and planting grass and vegetables in lots where drug houses once stood.  While the project will eliminate urban blight, it also serves as a means to engage the diocese’s young Catholics, to teach them the value of service and to help them see Christ in everybody and everywhere, including in these struggling neighborhoods.

Shuttered Factory

A shuttered factory in Youngstown, Ohio

On May 21, with support from Catholic Extension donors, more than 120 young Catholics hit the streets of Youngstown in various locations to take the neighborhoods back.  The evening before their work began, the youth were prepped with prayer by participating in Eucharistic Adoration.  They were instructed to see Christ not only in the chapel but in the streets of Youngstown, and to discover for themselves what it literally means to renew the face of the Earth.

“These young people are a symbol of hope for us,” said Fr, Greg, St. Dominic pastor, who spoke as kids worked around him in the 80-degree sun picking up old liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia from a vacant lot next to the parish, while planting grass seed to create a playing field. “Catholic Extension wants to instill the Catholic faith more deeply and this is what we are doing today,” he added.

Family members of the deceased also were among the workers.  I spoke to the nieces of one of the slain.  “We will not let this violence define us.  But being out here today helps give us some closure,” one said.  More importantly, the family members wanted to “stand with the parish” in its effort to fight back.

Of Service

Teens experience what it’s like to be of service.

John Drummond, a recent graduate of Ohio State University as well as an alum of the Catholic high school down the street from St. Dominic, was in charge of logistics.  “I think this service has taught kids that your community is much larger than the 10 houses on your block,” he noted.  He gives these kids  credit.  “These kids are really inspiring,” said John, who is only in his early 20s.  “This generation gets a bad rap because people assume ‘these kids don’t want to do anything; they just want to play on their iPhones,’ but these kids are working hard.”

What’s the impact of this experience on the kids? You be the judge.

“This teaches us to help your neighbor,” said Taylor, a high school freshman.

“Poverty is not just in other countries, it’s right here in the U.S.” said Taiwana, also a freshman.

“I want to do this again soon,” said Mahia.

Change has to start somewhere.  On May 21 we took a great step forward for inner-city parishioners as well as for young Catholics from across the Diocese of Youngstown.  Catholic Extension will continue supporting the diocese to solidify and grow this hands-on evangelization.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Encouraging Trends in Catholicism

This week I was in McKee, KY, a small town in the foothills of Appalachia.  I visited St. Paul Mission, a thriving Catholic community supported by Catholic Extension located in an area of the country where less than one half of a percent of the population is Catholic.

If you’ve ever thought that Catholicism is dying, let me show you where it is rising.  If you’ve ever thought that no one cares anymore about the faith, let me introduce you to the people who care.  If you’ve ever thought that all young people disdain religion, let me introduce you to the ones who fully embrace it.  If you’ve ever been depressed about the direction our Church is headed in, allow me to restore some hope in you.

But, to restore your confidence, you’ll have to go to places off of the beaten path, places like St. Paul in McKee, KY.  The parishioners are all people who live in the “trenches,” witnessing every day the realities of rural poverty, rampant drug use, teen pregnancy and youth growing up in broken homes.  Yet, all the people I met, John, Melvin, Eddie, Rebecca, Monica, Judy, and Fr. Frank, their pastor, see hope everywhere.  Catholics here simply live the Gospel and love their neighbors.

These parishioners don’t have means, but they sure have meaning.  One parishioner, Melvin, said “I can count on one hand how many of our parishioners make over $30,000 a year.” Even though the 25 Catholic families of the parish are small in number and financial resources, they provide thousands upon thousands of hours of service to their local community annually. Catholics have built a reputation in Jackson county for assisting Catholics and Non-Catholics alike.

The humble dwelling of a resident in Eastern Kentucky, where the needs are great, but the Catholic response is heroic.

Rebecca, the young and energetic lay pastoral associate of St. Paul, was recently transporting a sick member of the community to a health care visit when her vehicle slipped off the narrow dirt road into a ditch.  A passer-by, and non-catholic, upon assessing her situation, instructed her to “Give those Catholics a call.  They’ll do just about anything to help you out.”   Had she made that call, she would have been calling herself, as she is the primary contact person for the local Catholic community there.

Judy, a local business owner and parishioner of St. Paul, feels that God has called her to serve the people of McKee.  Judy runs a local factory.  On the surface it looks like a regular for-profit company, but her true mission, she explained, is to provide meaningful employment for people in this economically depressed area.  She arrived in Jackson County Kentucky years ago as a Christian Appalachian Volunteers, an organization founded by the legendary diocesan priest, Monsignor Ralph Beiting.  In the early days, volunteers like Judy earned a stipend of $50 a month and received no health insurance.  Years later, that service experience has never left her, and so neither has she left McKee.  Today as a Catholic business owner, she continues the mission of helping people, to be a source of economic development for their community.

Eddie, a husband and father of five who works at a local saw mill, believes that it has been the parish community which has anchored people in their faith so solidly and enabled them to live their faith so powerfully.  “I will never leave this community, even though it’s a little hard to be Catholic here” he said, “I want my children to grow up here.”

Catholics who live out their faith are transforming the world.  And wherever I go in the U.S. to visit Catholic communities I encounter individuals who live radical lives of service, rooted in their faith.  Their stories are not isolated incidents of good will. Rather, they represent a real phenomenon, that ordinary, yet holy men and women are setting the world ablaze and bringing life to the Catholic Church.  As their pastor, Fr. Frank so aptly observed, “Hey, where there is charity and Love, there God is.”  We Catholics should feel good about that.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

The Other Side of Paradise

This week I was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Catholic Extension supports the Diocese of St. Thomas.

I know what you are thinking: what a tough assignment for a Chicagoan like me, who hasn’t seen the sun shine or felt a warm breeze on his face since October.  For the record, I did see a palm tree or two; I did behold turquoise waters softly undulating over coral, and I did happen to see a sandy beach.  This is indeed a paradise.  But I saw a side of paradise that the bronzed tourists in flip-flops and souvenir t-shirts undoubtedly miss during their visits.  I got to experience the reality that the Church lives every day.

We began our visit in downtown St. Thomas.  An abandoned building that serves as a drug house sits across the street from the Cathedral school.  Two doors down is a brothel, and then another brothel, and one more block down is yet another brothel, the largest of its kind on the Islands.  A few streets down is a neighborhood where the Catholic Church operates a soup kitchen to feed people who are literally starving.

The Church is present to all people on the islands.

As the bishop so aptly observed, “We are really entrenched in the realities of the Islands.”

I witnessed firsthand how the church is educating and forming young people who are constantly confronted with these perils.  In the past ten years, Catholic Extension has been supporting education, outreach, and faith formation initiatives.  The diocese is forming a powerful support system around these children.  They will need it.  The harsh realities of the island are not far away… they are actually right across the street.

Abandoned vehicles, which serve as makeshift homes, and junk line the streets of this neighborhood on the interior of the island.

As I entered the various classrooms of the Cathedral School, which educates students grades K-12, I was greeted by children in uniform, who reflect the social and economic diversity of the island.  The children stand up with broad smiles on their faces to greet their guests with their customary words, “Good morning and God loves you.”  These kids were faith-filled, happy, hard-working and free to dream big. “I want to be lawyer,” said one 6th grade girl whom we met in the middle of her history lesson.  “I get up at 5 a.m. every day and take a boat to school from another island,” said one high school-aged girl from behind her biology book.  The church’s presence doesn’t stop at the end of the school day, as almost every teenage student participates in their parish youth group.

While the church has made some great headway in transforming these lives while confronting the realities of the island, unfortunate indicators suggest there is still much work to be done.

We visited the Island of St. Croix and were taken to an isolated and impoverished neighborhood.  To get there we had to take a rugged road, which ultimately became completely impassible by car, forcing us to get out and walk.  “Come, I want to show you this place,” the bishop said.  It is a shanty town.  Some people live in abandoned cars; others live in houses surrounded by barbed wire and rusty scraps of sheet metal.   There is junk everywhere, entangled by lush vegetation.  An elderly man waved to us from where he sat on a worn-out couch under a tree.  The bishop explained that he celebrates Christmas mass here.  It breaks his heart to know that at least 67 children live in this neighborhood, many of whom live in volatile home environments and are not being educated.

The place where the Bishop celebrates Christmas Mass.

“Joe, if we can just get a building in this neighborhood, just get a presence going, I know we can make a difference.”

His observation is so correct.

In all the communities I visit, I invariably discover that the local Catholic Church is entrenched, and therefore uniquely positioned to transform people’s hearts and their communities.  I also realize how Catholic Extension is uniquely positioned to help respond to these needs and opportunities.

The church is entrenched in the realities of life, both the joys and the sorrows.  The church sees both sides of the island.

Carefree children play within the protective walls of the Cathedral School.

Through its 1,000+ grants per year  to U.S. –based Catholic “mission dioceses,” Catholic Extension and its donors are working hand-in-hand with these local churches, infusing new life in under-resourced communities near and far.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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.

Hope: A Stadium Full of Proof

At Catholic Extension, we’ve seen so many inspiring Catholic communities doing so much with few resources.  We’ve developed a saying to describe what we are witnessing: “Hope is happening in 3-D.”

A young person bears gifts at Mass while 10,000 onlookers watch.

This past weekend, I visited Stockton, for a unique event held in the community for the last 30 consecutive years: the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration.  More than 12,000 people of all ages from parishes throughout the Diocese of Stockton are represented at this annual event, which includes a procession with dozens of semi-trucks hauling meticulously decorated floats that slowly make their way down the streets as parishioners sing hymns, perform traditional cultural dances in magnificently colorful costumes, or dress in character to act out scenes from the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego.

“When I first celebrated the Feast of Our Lady in the 1960s, there were only three people. Now it overwhelms me to come here today and see the thousands.”

The procession is about a mile in length and ends at the Stockton Arena, an indoor sports stadium, where approximately 10,000 faithful pack the stands for a post-procession Mass with the bishop.  While Catholics have been doing processions (the precursor to the modern parade) for centuries, one of this scale is truly a sight to behold.

The most striking thing about the celebration, though, isn’t the enormous  procession or arena Mass, but is, in fact, the vibrant, growing faith community the event has helped to create.  For three decades, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has united the community of Stockton, enriched the faith of people and acted as a force of hope in the face of severe economic hardship and escalating crime rates in some areas.  It draws people, particularly young people, into the Church.

After the event we caught up with some of the Catholic faithful who have been a part of the event for many years. The significance and growth of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration was underscored by a woman who danced in the procession in its earliest days and today watches her grandchildren participate in the event. “I’ll stand up to say this,” she said, pushing her walker away from her. “When I first celebrated the Feast of Our Lady in the 1960s, there were only three people.  Now it overwhelms me to come here today and see the thousands.”

Youth march through the streets of Stockton, CA as part of the annual procession to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.

One of the teenagers involved in the festivities talked about how she has witnessed young people’s lives literally transformed through their experience with this event.  “Doing drugs, getting pregnant, or joining a gang are ways that young people get into trouble here, but we’ve seen kids turning away from that because this event gives them hope and purpose.”

One young man, who performs in the parade each year and attributes his survival of a bad accident to Our Lady of Guadalupe, said, “We realize we are family here, united in our faith.”

“When I see all these young people walking the streets in the name of the Church,” said one man, “the hair on my arms just stands right up.”

In a recent blog post, I talked about resourceful Christianity — people who really stretch the dollar.  Stockton’s Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe event requires a full year of planning, involves hundreds of volunteer organizers and, ultimately, engages thousands of people who sing and perform in the procession.  Considering the Diocese of Stockton has only a single paid staff person organizing this event, one stands in amazement at the community’s ability to organize and grow a celebration of this magnitude from 3 to 12,000 over the years.

But Stockton’s Catholics are determined to keep expanding the event.  Catholic Extension is working with the diocese to further support its efforts to enhance the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe experience and create a more financially sustainable event, so that the continued growth of this Catholic feast does not outgrow the diocese’s capacity to host this experience and reach out to even more of the nearly 325,000 people in the area.

This past Sunday, I saw 12,000 people and 12,000 reasons to be hopeful.  As one man told me, “When we all come together like this, we realize we are not alone.”  I couldn’t help but think about those early disciples who, upon realizing that they weren’t alone, immediately got out into the streets to offer some Good News to the world.  We were grateful to see hopeful things take place before our eyes– in 3-D – during an extraordinary day in Stockton, CA.

Where do you see hope happening near you?

Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored by an annual procession in Stockton, CA.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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

Resourceful Christianity

I have just returned from Eastern Kentucky in the Diocese of Lexington, a trip that included hundreds of miles of travel across Kentucky’s Appalachia Mountains.

St. Martha’s Church in Prestonsburg, KY faces an abandoned coal mine.

This is a place where poverty and social problems are rampant.  We heard stories of families literary starving. We heard about households in which toilet paper is a luxury.  We heard that hundreds of parents cannot afford to purchase underwear and socks for their children, including one account of a young girl who, upon receiving the gift of socks for Christmas from her church, clutched those socks  closely to her face and contemplated the gift with as much delight as a girl getting a pony. We heard stories of horrific living conditions: of uninhabitable, rat-infested trailer homes with the floors falling in. These are the realities of poverty in this country, and many of these tales are hard to accept.  But there is another, much more hopeful reality. We also heard and saw that God is alive and active in these mountains.

Our Lady of the Mountains Church in Stanton, KY.

By the end of my visit, I found myself thunderstruck – not by the dreadful poverty, but by the unquenchable passion of our Church to walk with those who live in poverty. Catholics are a minority in Appalachia, and in some areas they are still not even recognized as Christian.  In many counties in the Diocese of Lexington, Catholics are one in a thousand (or 0.1% of the population).  But, what Catholics lack in numbers, they make up for in their presence to their communities.  Their outreach efforts are simply superhuman.

Over the past few decades, we learned, the Catholic Church has been able to increase its outreach, gain community trust and increase the number of people who practice the faith.  We visited one parish that has slowly built up its base of parishioners over the years.  In fact, 80 percent of the church’s 100+ families are converts, including the parish priest.

What is drawing them to our faith? The mighty deeds of resourceful, joyful, faithful Catholics who represent hope to a forgotten people.

Fr. Bob Damron of St. Martha’s Church in Prestonsburg, KY.

One 87-year-old monsignor from Louisa, Kentucky, whose energy level has visibly increased with age, is gearing up to serve 18,000 families this year. He said to me, “We are going to do something to help people; we’re not going to sit around and talk about it.”

A parishioner at Our Lady of the Mountains in Stanton, Kentucky told me how she feels about her weekly service to struggling mothers, a ministry that is hosted by her church. “I know God has called me here, I just know he has,” she said with the fire of conviction burning in her eyes.

“What is your hope for this parish?” I asked a group of parish leaders at one church. “To be able to help more people,” three of the leaders chimed in with little hesitation. “Here, we know how to live our Christianity,” one woman told me.

In spite of their resourcefulness and intelligence, these hardworking Catholics expressed to me in varied ways how deeply aware they are that all of us are ultimately reliant on divine providence, and that their efforts are dependent on God’s grace and generosity.

At St. Martha’s Catholic Church in Prestonsburg, where Catholic Extension recently helped build an outreach center, many of the parishioners thanked Catholic Extension and its donors for sharing in their mission.  Those of us from Catholic Extension, in turn, shared how proud we are to call parishes like these our partners.  These parishioners demonstrated to us, once again, that Catholic Extension doesn’t provide charity. Rather, it offers support to further the efforts of dynamic faith communities who are, in their words, “carrying on the work of Christ.”  Their resourcefulness in these noble endeavors is perhaps summed up best by one parishioner who told me, “Oh, we can stretch a dollar like you wouldn’t believe.”

As I absorbed all of this information over several days, St. Paul was ringing in my ears: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Adversity is not impeding our fellow Catholics around the country from putting faith into action; in fact, adversity is ironically driving their action with greater force.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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