Living Lessons in Ecumenism

Some people theorize about ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, and other people live it every day.

St. Ann Parish in rural Kingstree, South Carolina.

St. Ann Parish in rural Kingstree, South Carolina.

I had a chance to visit St. Ann Catholic Parish located in a rural Kingstree, South Carolina.  St. Ann is an old Jewish synagogue that the local Catholics purchased and renovated slightly in 2004 with support from Catholic Extension.  The renovations included installing a cross, a statue of Mary, a tabernacle and kneelers. Everything else basically remained intact.  Remnants of the church’s previous “owners” abound with Stars of David, Torah scrolls and Menorahs depicted in the stain glass windows and doors.  This physical environment reminds parishioners every Sunday of their common roots with those of the Jewish tradition.

St. Ann Church was formerly a Jewish Synagogue.

St. Ann Church was formerly a Jewish Synagogue.

This small but active parish has had 13 pastors in the past 20 years.  In the 37,000 square-mile-diocese of Charleston, priests are stretched thin, trying to provide sacraments among distant mission communities.  During this time, a group of Felician sisters has given pastoral stability to St. Ann.  They teach religious education, lead choir and care for the church.  In addition to their parish duties, at what they jokingly refer to as the “syna-church,” these religious sisters run an outreach center “across the tracks,” which feeds, educates and clothes more than 4,000 people every year.  They intentionally situated their ministry in an area of town that is notorious for violence, drugs and alcoholism.

Catholics are less than 5 percent of the population in this area, so to accomplish their ambitious mission of serving the many who are poor and disadvantaged, the sisters partner with various local Protestant churches.  Sixty regular volunteers from different races, faith denominations and walks of life come together to serve through the Felician Center.

The Felician Sisters work with community members and volunteers.

The Felician Sisters work with community members and volunteers.

One volunteer, Jean, who identified herself as Presbyterian, says that the sisters give Christians in the area the opportunity to fulfill what God is calling us all to do by encouraging people to get out of their comfort zones and go to the other side of the tracks to serve those in need.

I met another volunteer, Ed, an energetic 90-year-old Catholic parishioner from St. Ann. He told us that each Sunday he goes to Catholic Mass at 8:30 a.m., while his wife attends service at her Presbyterian church at 11 a.m.  But when it comes time to work with the sisters, Christian unity prevails.  For 20 continuous years, they have been tutoring kids and serving meals at the Felician Center and are amazed and proud to see how the ministry has grown.

It’s no surprise that these Felician sisters are among Catholic Extension’s 12 Lumen Christi Award finalists for 2012.  The nomination, which came to us from the bishop of the Charleston diocese and the people of South Carolina, recognizes that something truly special is happening here.

The Sisters bring joy to a struggling community.

The Sisters bring joy to a struggling community.

Sisters Susanne and Johnna have had a presence in the area for two decades, and together with the broader Christian community, they are helping transform a very poor area.  A quick check of the U.S. Census Bureau statistics sadly confirms that Kingstree is located in one of the poorest counties of South Carolina and in one of the poorest states in the nation. But this is precisely the kind of place where you so often find the Church at its best, where people collectively rise to the challenge.

In Kingstree, people of faith are changing culture, social paradigms, and ultimately, minds and hearts.  To do this, they are focusing on what unites them and not what divides them.

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

Meeting People Halfway

I recently had the privilege of visiting communities in Idaho that are supported by Catholic Extension.  The Catholic community is spread across a diocese spanning the entire state of Idaho.  Catholics represent only about 11% of the population and many of the communities are rural and working class who are struggling in the wake of this uncertain economy.  Needless to say, it’s a bit of a challenge to create a vibrant church experience in these circumstances.  Yet, everywhere I went in Idaho I encountered passionate Catholics who are deeply committed to the faith, doing their absolute best to reach marginalized populations, and generate growth in the Church.

I visited St. Jerome parish in southern Idaho, where Catholic Extension provides support for pastoral programs.  This is a bi-cultural parish that has done an excellent job of figuring out how to welcome everybody.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

Just ten years ago, their Sunday Mass attracted no more than 300 people.  But today, Mass is attended by 1,500 people, including families that drive as far as 70 miles to get there every week.

The parish offers religious education in two languages to hundreds of children, and classrooms are packed to capacity.   “We used to have very small classes,” said Katie, the director of religious education who grew up in the parish, “This year we got to the number 300 and I thought, ‘what are we going to do with all these kids?’”  Parishioners acknowledge that this type of logistical issue is in fact a blessing.

Fr. Ron, the pastor, said that “We just try to meet people halfway.”

This mentality of ‘meeting people halfway’ is at the heart of St. Jerome’s effort to feed hundreds of people and families on a weekly basis out of the parish food pantry.

St. Jerome Parish food pantry.

St. Jerome parish food pantry, Martha & Mary's.

This spirit of welcome also drives their work with local teenagers, many of whom are facing hard decisions about drugs and gangs.   A young adult named Gio, who works with the 60+ members of the youth group, had his share of struggles as a teen growing up in Jerome, Idaho.  But one parish retreat called “Come and See” changed his life so much so, that thereafter he committed himself to bringing moral strength and faith to today’s young people who face the same challenges that he once did.

Up the road two hours, I paid a visit to St. Paul’s Newman Center at Boise State University, where Catholic Extension has provided operations support for the past several years.  There too, I learned about all the ways that this ministry is ‘meeting people halfway.’

The worn out, orange carpeting and the musty couches with out-of-style patterns that adorn this facility would suggest that this campus ministry has seen better days.  However, the opposite is true.  This ministry’s impact continues to increase.   I met a group of students over lunch that seemed to have just as much confidence talking about their Catholic faith as they did discussing their beloved university football team.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

At least three students shared similar stories about how Catholicism had never been a part of their lives growing up.  But, they were invited to St. Paul’s Newman Center by their peers and have decided to become fully practicing Catholics after experiencing the joy of this faith community.

As many as 12 of the approximately 300 students who are part of St. Paul’s Newman Center are currently considering vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We met a young woman who came into the Church at Easter Vigil in 2009 through St. Paul’s RCIA program.  She is now seriously discerning a vocation to religious life and credits the supportive faith community of St. Paul with giving her the courage to do so.

When the Church meets people where they are at, it increases its ability to reach more.  The Catholic communities in Boise have figured this out and used this wisdom to their advantage.

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

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

Deacons: Servant Leaders, Catholic Heroes

No matter where I travel, the deacons I meet never fail to impress me.  A recent trip to Amarillo, Texas, only added to my already overwhelmingly favorable impression of these dedicated men.  Though they come from all walks of life, they share a common desire to serve the Church, often in very radical ways.  In the 86 “mission dioceses” served by Catholic Extension, deacons are a source of stability and stimulus for the Church.

The 48 deacons spread throughout the geographically vast Diocese of Amarillo help keep Catholic communities strong.

The 48 deacons spread throughout the geographically vast Diocese of Amarillo help keep Catholic communities strong.

One could argue that deacons perhaps play an even more significant role in “mission dioceses,” areas where vast distance, limited financial resources or extreme priest shortages are common challenges.  Luckily, there is no shortage of spirit in these “mission dioceses,” and these deacons, in a very special way, embody that spirited Catholic sensibility that we at Catholic Extension so often encounter.

With 48 deacons, the Diocese of Amarillo has one of the highest deacon-per-capita ratios in the country.  As I traveled across the plains of the Texas panhandle, visiting Catholic Extension-funded ministries, the incredible impact of the deacons was everywhere to be seen.  These deacons are not working in cushy ministries.  Rather, they are in the trenches.

Deacon Jesse, who ministers to prisoners, wears a permanent smile.

Deacon Jesse, who ministers to prisoners, wears a permanent smile.

We accompanied Deacons Mark and Jesse to Clements Unit Prison, where the average inmate’s sentence is 65 years.  They took us inside the prison.  It is a tough place, but the deacons are there to bring hope, dignity, faith and rehabilitation.  They usually spend six days a week in this environment.   I couldn’t help but notice that Deacons Mark and Jesse never shed their smiles during the visit, even when we entered the cell block in the maximum security unit, where the most troubled inmates are housed.  Later, as we passed the “chow hall,” one young man, with a shaved head and tattooed neck, recognized Deacon Jesse.  “Hey man,” the inmate said with delight at the sight of the deacon, “how have you been?”  Deacon Jesse confidently walked over and greeted him with a smile, a warm handshake, and a pat on the back.  “Good to see you,” Deacon Jesse said warmly, “I’ll come around again soon!”

Catholic Extension provides funding to make this ministry possible, and these deacons stretch that support as far as they can, serving thousands of inmates throughout the diocese each year.  They shared many stories of conversion and reconciliation, which are undoubtedly the direct result of their hard work.

Deacon Wayne has been pivotal in helping the Church grow in the northern most region of the Texas Panhandle.

Deacon Wayne has been pivotal in helping the Church grow in the northern most region of the Texas Panhandle.

An hour’s drive north on a tumble weed-strewn road led us to Sunray, Texas, where we met Deacon Wayne at Christ the King Church.  The mission church was built with Catholic Extension’s support years ago, and it currently receives a small operating grant from Catholic Extension of $1,500 per year to help them make ends meet.  Deacon Wayne has lived in Sunray since 1947 and was a member of the first class of deacons for the diocese.  His dedication has enabled the Catholic community to thrive in this humble, working-class town where agriculture and oil are the primary industries.  Deacon Wayne has witnessed the parish grow from about 13 families to 75 families.  Today, it is a young and still-growing parish, consisting of mostly families, with nearly 100 children in religious education programs.  Deacon Wayne is happy to see that he is one of the few parishioners with gray hair.  He helped keep the parish afloat some years ago when it only had $35 in the bank and was struggling to keep the lights on.  He was a stable presence during the years when there was no regular priest assigned to the parish.  He helped the minority Catholic population gain unprecedented acceptance in Sunray by developing strong relationships with the seven other Christian churches in the town.  Thanks to his steady and friendly presence, the Catholic faith is growing here.  In fact, the faith in Sunray is so strong and the bonds among Catholics so deep that “it goes beyond family,” says Deacon Wayne.

Throughout the years Catholic Extension has helped fund the education and training of hundreds of deacons like Wayne, Jesse and Mark in dioceses across the country.  When I think of all the deacons Catholic Extension has financially supported throughout the country, and consider their many achievements as they strive to anchor the faith community as well as extend it, I realize how fantastically lucrative Catholic Extension’s return on investment has been for the Church.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, 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

History, Progress, and the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A loose dog, prowls the streets of Lopezville.

A loose dog, prowls the streets of Lopezville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Church with Nothing, Has it All.

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

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

Parishioners show their spirit with a song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light Shines Brightly Through the Darkness

Last week, Catholic Extension offered its annual Lumen Christi Award to Sr. Gabriella Williams, O.P., in the Lower Desert of southern California.  In Latin, the award’s name means, “Light of Christ,” and it is given to a person in the U.S. whose ministry brings light and hope to both the Church and society.

I had the privilege of attending the Lumen Christi event, where we witnessed first-hand how Sr. Gabi’s brilliant “light” has counteracted a great deal of darkness, and ignited change throughout the community.

Sr. Gabi serves people living in the trailer parks across the Coachella Valley.  They are the working poor; the people who tirelessly labor in the fields and orchards of this region.  Their average household income rarely exceeds $10,000.  During our visit to these communities, I couldn’t help but recall the Steinbeck novels that I had read in school.During her eight years in this ministry, Sr. Gabi has provided pastoral care for about 150,000 people spread out among various trailer parks.  Ninety-eight percent of them are Roman Catholic.  As the Church’s representative for so many people, she serves as a faith-builder, educator and social activist. Sr. Gabi has stood in the face of so much darkness, yet she has always believed that the light of Christ is stronger and more powerful.  In doing so she has inspired other local community members to see the potential that she sees.

Sr. Gabi is the face of the Church for hundreds of families living in the Coachella Valley trailer parks.

As we walked through the trailer park, one of Sister’s fellow community organizers acknowledged, “What brings values and quality of life for these people?  Their faith.  Sister helps them believe.”   The Catholic faith gives these people both the reason and the tools needed to fight another day.

Sr. Gabi and the community are starting to see some changes.In the early days of her ministry, drugs and crime were rampant in the trailer parks.  Living conditions were deplorable with as many as 25 people living in one run-down trailer.  One slum lord would even barricade the entrance of the community with armed guards.  Sr. Gabi was not welcome there, but she never let that stand in her way.  To gain access to the people, she would simply get a running start in her red pick-up truck and race through the guarded entrance at a high speed.  Today, with her help and advocacy, that slumlord is gone, as are much of the crime and drugs, and the unsafe trailers.

Many of the trailer parks had been condemned 40-60 years ago. "They are painted garbage cans, but the people are beautiful," explained Sr. Gabi.

In the early days of her ministry, Sr. Gabi witnessed many young people drop out of school.  Today, with support from Catholic Extension, she is completing a new learning center so that she can help educate young people out of poverty.

In the early days of her ministry, the people in the trailer parks were being poisoned by the water that they drank.   A toxic dump sits next to one park, and burns waste that ultimately enters into the water supply.  In many places, dangerous levels of arsenic are present in the water.  Today, Sr. Gabi is working with a newly founded non-profit, Pueblo Unido, to create state-of-the-art, clean water stations, which will help thousands of people gain access to quality drinking water.

In the early days of her ministry, when the people were lost without the presence of the Church, Sister Gabi brought Bishop Barnes to celebrate Mass in the trailer parks to show the people that the larger Church does care about them.  Today, she’s recruited many Catholic retirees of the Palm Springs/Palm Desert parishes to serve as volunteers and fundraisers in her work.  She has provided religious education classes, and has arranged other Catholic celebrations in the parks to help people experience the fullness of the faith.

In the early days of her ministry, people were paralyzed with fear and unable to band together.  Today they have a sense of community, a sense of purpose, and a sense of their collective potential.

With the help of loyal volunteers, Sr. Gabi plans to use the $25,000 grant to complete the creation a youth education center.

When you hear Catholic Extension reference the “transformative power of faith,” Sr. Gabi’s ministry is exactly what we are talking about—a textbook example of what a faith community can do when it believes that the light of Christ shines brighter than the darkness.

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

Making Things Happen

Last week, a visit to the Diocese of Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, demonstrated so vividly for me that we belong to a Church that can make great things happen… even on a small budget.

I met with Sister Rosaline who operates the Our Lady Help of Christians Center for outreach near Gwinn, Mich.  With $50,000 in support from Catholic Extension’s donors, the center will be able to expand its ministry from a shoestring operation to a more robust presence in a community that desperately needs the steady hand of the Church. Sr. Rosaline can now purchase a phone—a luxury she did without until several months ago when news of Catholic Extension’s support reached her.

Sr. Rosaline reaches out to local families and children through the Our Lady Help of Christians Center.

The Our Lady Help of Christians Center provides meals to the hungry and referral services to an isolated rural community beset by poverty, drugs and violence.  The center serves an area that has been deeply affected by two major industries slowing down or completely leaving the area. Iron ore mining, which was historically a strong source of jobs, is no longer the lifeblood of the region. The K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, which brought tens of thousands of families to this otherwise rural community, closed in 1995.  The center is able to serve thousands of people in need, including children, who were affected by the decline of these industries essential to the region, or who find K.I. Sawyer the only affordable place to live.

As we visited the center, a group of local children approached Sr. Rosaline, some walking barefoot on asphalt, others with the day’s dirt on their hands and faces.  Sr. Rosaline is the face of the Church’s compassion for this abandoned community and the children clearly know her well. “How are you today?” she cheerfully asks one child as she stoops down and cups the girl’s chin in her hand.

Before departing, Sr. Rosaline turned to me and said, “Without Catholic Extension’s support, this ministry would have discontinued.”  Looking back on it now, I wish I could have been quick-witted enough in that moment to answer her by saying, “Sister, without people like you, Catholic Extension would have discontinued long ago.”

Catholic Extension’s mission is to help extend the faith in the U.S., but this can only be accomplished in partnership with dynamic Catholics like Sr. Rosaline who stand ready to do the hard work necessary to “extend” the Church’s presence and mission.

We belong to a Church that gets things done.   It is the Church that works.  It is the Church that continually extends itself beyond its four walls to serve the larger community.  Across the country, anywhere Catholics have a determination to live their faith, Catholic Extension is a ready partner for them in their efforts to mobilize.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Needs, Solutions and Impact

Identifying the needs of Catholic communities, developing solutions that address those needs and measuring the impact of our work and our donors’ gifts – these are among the many services Catholic Extension provides to the Church in the U.S.   On a recent trip to Little Rock, I met leaders from 23 of the 86 “mission dioceses” supported by Catholic Extension to learn about their emerging needs, understand how we can help and evaluate the strategies that have been successful.

Needs:

I met Fr. Leonardo, director of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Tulsa, OK.  He is solely in charge of the pastoral care of as many as 25,000 Catholics.  He drives 600 miles every weekend to visit the communities he supports.  From now on, I’ll just think of him the next time I’m tempted to complain that my life is hard.  Without a great deal of funding or any support staff, Fr. Leonardo’s efforts are severely limited, especially his efforts to reach out to poor and at-risk youth.  Last December, 400 impoverished young people from his diocese signed up for a potentially life-changing retreat, but because he couldn’t pay for the buses to transport these young people and had no staff to coordinate alternative transportation, he had to cancel.  “I just need someone who can focus all of their attention on these young people who have nothing,” Fr. Leonardo lamented.

I met the dynamic and successful Jesus Abrego, who works with youth in the Diocese of Beaumont, TX.  Just last week, he organized an event which drew thousands of spiritually hungry youth.  However, Abrego fears his efforts are not enough. “We have a rich past that we should celebrate,” he said.  “But, I am concerned about the future. How many of our young people are in jail, pregnant at 16 or addicted to drugs?”  It is his priority to find new and better ways to reach out to those youths.

The experiences of Fr. Leonardo and Jesus Abrego — those of having too big of a task with too little staff and funding — are unfortunately not uncommon experiences in our Church today.

Jesus Abrego, Director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry, Diocese of Beaumont, Texas

Solutions:

Investing in pastoral leaders is a simple and practical solution for our Church.  For more than 100 years, Catholic Extension has been providing salary support for pastoral leaders, and the need for this type of support is greater now more than ever.

Currently, Catholic Extension is proposing a $15 million partnership initiative with other funding organizations and Catholic dioceses, which would provide seed money to help establish 100 new positions for pastoral leaders across the country over the next three years.  These positions would help dynamic leaders like Fr. Leonardo and Jesus Abrego expand the outreach of the Church to the most vulnerable populations.

This initiative was enthusiastically embraced by the 23 diocesan representatives that gathered with me in Little Rock.  The additional leaders will help them engage Catholics on the margins, especially young Catholics.

Impact:

This solution of providing salary support has proven to be effective.  Take, for example, the Diocese of Little Rock, which experienced double-digit growth in its Catholic population over the last 20 years.  Catholic Extension invested heavily in the salaries of pastoral leaders in this diocese.

In the town of DeQueen, in the far southwest corner of Arkansas, Catholic Extension provided salary support to St. Barbara.  When that effort began, there were about 70 Catholics who belonged to the rural parish.  The new pastoral leaders, however, worked hard at building a vibrant faith community, and today the parish has more than 1,500 active Catholics.

Starting this week, Catholic Extension is funding the salaries of pastoral leaders who are moving their ministry across the state from DeQueen to Hamburg, Arkansas.  Currently, Holy Spirit Parish in Hamburg is a small community.  But Msgr. Scott Friend, the Vicar General of the diocese, knows that the area has great potential to grow, and in two to three years time they expect to have a community that rivals the size of the one in DeQueen.

The future is within reach, but we as Catholics are going to have to stretch ourselves to make it there.   What I learned on this trip to Little Rock is that while the needs are profound, there are steps we can take right now to address them and make a lasting difference for so many dedicated Catholics right here in our own country.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management