Bringing Hope Where it is Most Needed

In 1994, Time magazine labeled Lake Providence, Louisiana, “The Poorest Place in America.” The situation is not much better 18 years later. There is very little industry in this town, located in the northeast corner of Louisiana along the Mississippi River. Most of the buildings along the main street are run-down, and the stores are all shuttered. Very few people have jobs. There is nothing for the children and teens to do in the summer. According to one resident, if people can get out of Lake Providence, they do.

An abandoned home in Lake Providence, Louisiana.

An abandoned home in Lake Providence, Louisiana.

In the midst of what may appear to be a hopeless situation, there is one woman who serves as a source of hope to the community. Sister Bernadette Barrett, SHSP, known by everyone as “Sr. Bernie,” is that source of hope. Sister Bernie has been in Lake Providence for 10 years; there have been several sisters from her religious order who also have lived and served in the community. Recently, the other sister who had been living and working with Sister Bernie died; so, for the time being, she ministers alone. But behind her small stature and Irish brogue is a woman of great faith and strength.

We had the chance to visit Lake Providence on our recent visit to the Diocese of Shreveport. We sat down with Sister Bernie and Father Mark Watson, who is the pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, along with some members of the community. We were happy to have the chance to meet Sister in person, since we had heard so much about her work. Catholic Extension supports the sisters in Lake Providence by providing them with salary subsidies.

Sister Bernie Barrett visiting with members of the community.

Sister Bernie Barrett visiting with members of the community.

Sister Bernie coordinates the Lake Providence Collaborative Ministry Project. All of the members of the community spoke of the profound respect they have for her. Though many in this ecumenical group are not Catholic, they had countless stories of ways Sister Bernie had helped each of them and their community as a whole. And although they are incredibly distraught about what has become of the town, they continue to work with Sister to address some of the challenges through community action. Many became very emotional when speaking about her presence. They said, “Sister Bernie gets things done. When she’s coming, people say, ‘Oh, no…’” One of the women, Ethel, stated, “If we ever need a mayor, we’re all going to vote for Sister Bernie.”

Lake Providence community members share their stories with us.

Lake Providence community members share their stories with us.

Father Mark, who also has a real interest in social justice, spoke of Sister Bernie’s connections with St. Patrick’s and described her as a woman of faith who begins each day with Mass in the church. Then she spends her day bringing the love of Christ outside of the church walls to the people of the community. We left our visit struck by what one woman of faith can do to make a difference.

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

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

Small Investments, Big Results

Monsignor Gene Driscoll, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Lubbock, led the effort to establish the parish in 1998.

Fresh off our recent visit to the dioceses of San Angelo and Lubbock in the dry western half of Texas, I am struck by the fact that we witnessed something special: the fruits of investments made years ago.

Thirteen years ago, Catholic Extension made a $20,000 grant to the diocese of Lubbock to begin the process of creating a new parish in the diocese, the first in its 28-year history. “I didn’t even have a chair to sit on,” recalled Monsignor Gene Driscoll during the tour of the parish he helped found. Catholic Extension’s grant supported the establishment of an office for him at the Cathedral of Christ the King from which Monsignor Driscoll could begin his work of forming the new parish. In 1998, he gathered 20 couples and together they knocked on 9,500 doors in the area where the proposed parish would eventually be built. Their community outreach effort seems to have paid off. Thirteen years and two building phases later, Holy Spirit Catholic Church boasts more than 1,200 families and is bursting at the seams with activity. Since the first mass was celebrated in the fall of 1998, 470 people have been baptized. The community shows no sign of slowing down. To meet the demand for religious education, it has plans to build 14 more classrooms to supplement the existing campus which already includes a sanctuary that seats 1,400, a parish hall, a preschool and a baseball field.

The Holy Spirit Catholic community now worships in 1,400 seat sanctuary. The first mass was celebrated in 1998 in a Knights of Columbus hall that stood where the church now stands.

On another stop, south of San Angelo, the small town of Eldorado is home to a population of less than 2,000. We met with five of its teen residents who, thanks to a diocesan program called Make A Difference started with a $40,000 Catholic Extension grant in 2005, are committed to doing just that: make a difference.  Deisy, Audrey, Lauren, Joseph and Michael remarkably recounted how they each begrudgingly, at first, but joyfully, by the end, traded cell phones, junk food and sleeping in for a week helping strangers and growing in their faith.  Make a Difference, created by Franciscan Sister Adelina Garcia, OSF, is a week-long summer experience designed to expose Catholic teens from parishes throughout the diocese to a life of Catholic faith in action. Each day is filled with an experience of hands-on community service followed by an evening of prayer and reflection.  The intended result for participants, said Sister Garcia, is a broader sense of the Church and a deeper commitment to living their Catholic faith. The teens we met were living proof that it has worked.

In the background, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, home to “difference makers” Deisy, Audrey, Lauren, Michael and Joseph.

“It made me want to help people more and do other stuff with the Church,” said Joseph, a tall athletic young man who, alongside his brother, Michael, starts on the varsity basketball team and who, with their sister Lauren, is one of three in a set of triplets. It has given them confidence in their Catholic faith, too. In an area where Catholics are less than 20% of the population, Make A Difference gave the teens the support they needed to learn the faith from peers and leaders during the week and provided them with a network of friends to draw upon once they went home. More proof of the program’s effectiveness? Working with materials developed by Sister Adelina, Deisy is hoping to work with other Make A Difference alumni to mount a local version of the experience for more teens from her parish to experience.

Up until now, when visiting a mission diocese, I often found myself encountering something great, watching the seeds of something new take hold, like a new program or new building.  Instead, on this trip, alongside the new projects and possibilities, we encountered the fully-grown fruits of projects started years ago by Catholic Extension funds that today are flourishing on their own in the able hands of committed volunteers and leaders.  Modest investments made years ago by Catholic Extension donors are today paying dividends in the lives of thousands in San Angelo and Lubbock.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Father Tolton

“Nothing will be impossible for God.” (Lk 1: 37)

Last week in my “America’s Children” post, I talked about some of the real-time saints emerging among the youth in California, those brave kids who are up against tremendous forces.

Fr. Tolton overcame unthinkable adversity to be ordained as the country’s first African-American Catholic priest.

I am pleased to still be on “saint watch” this week as we witness an official saint-in-the-making from a little-known place in the U.S. called, Brush Creek, MO. The candidate for sainthood’s name is Fr. Augustine Tolton and St. Peter Church in Brush Creek is the place where he was baptized 156 years ago.

Fr. Tolton was born into slavery and later overcame unthinkable adversity to be ordained as the country’s first African-American Catholic priest.  He attended St. Peter until he escaped to the free state of Illinois during the Civil War.  He wanted to become a priest, but was denied access to seminaries in the U.S. So he went to the Urban College in Rome, where he was ordained in 1886. He returned to the U.S. to serve and, despite rampant racism and discrimination, he became one of Chicago’s most popular pastors, attracting members of both white and black Catholic communities.   He shines as an example of what happens when Christians embrace this crazy idea that “nothing will be impossible for God.”

As we wrap up Black Catholic History Month this November, we at Catholic Extension have announced a grant to the Diocese of Jefferson City, where the tiny town of Brush Creek is located.  We have pledged to help the diocese repair the humble site of Fr. Tolton’s baptism, a church accessible only via gravel road, to preserve the enormously important legacy of a heroic priest of the late 19th century who is now being considered for sainthood.  Pilgrims are beginning to visit this sacred place as more and more people become aware of the Fr. Tolton story through the Archdiocese of Chicago’s efforts to present his cause for canonization.

Currently, St. Martin de Porres is the Catholic Church’s only “official” saint of African descent in the Western Hemisphere.  Fr. Tolton would be a welcome addition to that rank.  His story in so many ways represents the rich history of African-American Catholics, who in spite of many setbacks and struggles over the years have intrinsically shaped our Catholic religious experience in the U.S. and have made us a better, more complete Church.

My own spiritual formation, in a very personal way, has been influenced by the Black Catholic perspective here in Chicago in parish not far from where Fr. Tolton once ministered a century ago.  For several years, I attended a church whose goal, which many parishioners could repeat verbatim, was  “to bring one more soul closer to Christ and to help somebody along the way.” For me, this sums up both the spiritual and the social dimensions of Christianity that African American Catholics intuitively understand and embody.

Fr. Tolton’s story reminds us of the truth that is also at the heart of Catholic Extension’s work: the greatest among us emerge from the least-expected places. Our grant to St. Peter will enable the Diocese of Jefferson City to preserve the rich legacy of America’s first African-American priest, so that Fr. Tolton’s story can continue to be shared among Catholics and give hope to communities that face immense social and economic challenges today.”

You can read more about Fr. Augustine Tolton’s life at : http://www.catholicextension.org/site/epage/108432_667.htm

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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

450 miles through Texas

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

Tuesday (October 19th):

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


Wednesday (October 20th):

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

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

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