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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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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