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

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

“The Cry of the Poor”

“The Lord hears the cry of the poor… blessed be the Lord…” Many of us know the words to that song we sing at Mass. They come from Psalm 34. This past week, members from the Catholic Extension team met a woman who hears the cry of the poor every day; and her life is spent helping them.

Last week we visited the Catholic Extension supported El Centro de Los Pobres (meaning, “The Center for the Poor”), in the small town of Avondale, Colorado. Los Pobres is the only charitable facility that serves the Catholic farm worker population in southern Colorado, many of whom don’t even have an address to put on their registration form.

El Centro de Los Pobres provides aid to more than 1,400 families of migrant workers in the Diocese of Pueblo.

El Centro de Los Pobres provides aid to more than 5,000 families of migrant workers in the Diocese of Pueblo.

The small, inconspicuous warehouse space is a haven for these workers, who bring their families on a regular basis for rice and beans, clothing, simple health services, help with bills and a safe floor to sleep on when times are at their worst. The center also provides social outreach for these visitors, acting as a voice for them in society when they have no one else to turn to.  Whatever the reason for their visit, the men, women and children served by Los Pobres leave with a sense of hope.

Catholic Extension has been able to help support Los Pobres through the generosity of some of our donors. Father Maurice Gallagher, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Avondale, started Los Pobres 29 years ago. They currently have 5,000 families registered at the center. Over 200 families come to get help each week.

Sister Nancy Crafton, of the Sisters of Charity, is in charge of Los Pobres. She welcomed us when we arrived; and we were immediately struck by her incredible energy and huge smile. A light seemed to shine forth from Sister Nancy. Even though Sister Nancy regularly hears sad stories (“This is not a happy place,” she said), she exuded a great sense of faith and hope. Sister Nancy loves the people to whom she ministers. Each person she spoke with was greeted with a smile.

Last year alone, Los Pobres provided over $100,000 in utility assistance.

Sr. Nancy (left) with a client. Last year alone, Los Pobres provided over $100,000 in utility assistance.

Sister Nancy gave us a tour of Los Pobres, which is run by an all-volunteer staff. Many local parishioners give generously of their time, and all volunteers are farm workers themselves. Though the Center is in a large warehouse, it is bright and welcoming. There is a large clothing area for families to choose clothes which have been donated. Another area is for distributing food. And there is a small clinic, where local doctors come to help these men, women and children who have no access to adequate health care, because they have no health insurance.

While we were there, many of the people who came up to Sister Nancy had medical bills or utility bills in their hands.  They have no way of paying them. Sister Nancy graciously took each one, and reassured them that she would help them take care of their bills. We noticed that many of the mothers and children who were visiting Los Pobres that morning were happy to see each other; not only was this a place they come to receive help, but it is also a community of support for them.  Many of these women credited Sister Nancy and the center for changing their lives.

Volunteers

The community spends a great deal of time volunteering at Los Pobres. Most volunteers are farm workers.

The back of the Los Pobres brochure includes a passage from Proverbs: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will reward him for what he has done.” Sister Nancy and her volunteers are kind to los pobres. We at Catholic Extension are grateful for the chance to be inspired by their faith, hope and love.

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

Donate now to support ministries like El Centro de Los Pobres across the US.

A New Church for St. Mary Presentation

Each year, nearly 100 parishes in the United States receive Catholic Extension funding to make critical facility improvements.

St. Mary Presentation Parish in Deer Park, Washington, recently celebrated the one year anniversary of their new church.  Watch the video below to see how a $50,000 grant from Catholic Extension helped this parish build a new church to accommodate their thriving faith community in the Diocese of Spokane.


To help support Catholic communities like St. Mary Presentation, please consider making a gift today.

— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications, 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

Into the Bush Country (Alaska part 3)

Bethel, Alaska, in the Diocese of Fairbanks, is the largest of all 600 Bush villages.  Bethel is a “hub” for planes in and out of the region, serving 56 villages.  It’s a hub because the only way to get in and out of Bethel and the rest of the Bush country is by boat or plane.  Half of the village of Bethel just got indoor plumbing; no cell phone service is available in the entire area.  As opposed to the gorgeous mountains, cascading waterfalls and pristine coast of Valdez, the Bush country is tundra – flat and treeless, with millions of lakes, marshes and mosquitoes- what they call the State Bird of Alaska.

The expansive Bush country in Alaska.

Everyday life is tough and challenging in the Bush country, but these Native Alaskans are a happy and faith-filled people.  They are Yu-pic Americans; Yu-pic meaning “the real people.”  We grew up calling them “Eskimos.”

Many of the people revel in the challenges and take joy and pride in their way of life.  Justin, who is finishing up two years with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp., said he “wanted to come to the Bush Country of Alaska ever since he was a little kid.”  He is discerning the priesthood, and has been leading the youth group for 8th-12th graders.

“Bethel comes alive in the winter,” Justin explained, noting that “snow machining,” ice fishing, dog mushing, cross country skiing, para-skiing and other outdoor activities keep the village going, even in days that reach negative 70 degrees.  “Negative 25 (-25 degrees Fahrenheit) is like summer,” he laughed.  The first snow hit last year on September 29.  It’s so cold in Bethel in winter that pipes are raised above ground – those placed in the ground freeze and crack.

Justin leads a youth group for 8th-12th graders.

Justin is even optimistic when discussing living in the freezing cold in four hours of sunlight, on average each day, in winter.  “I get to see the sunrise and sunset every day,” he noted.  “And the stars, they are ‘planetarium’ clear.  In the summer, it’s so light until so late that you don’t get to see the stars.”

Bethel, like other communities in Alaska, is dealing with serious social issues – high rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, Justin explained.  “We do a lot of counseling,” he said, noting it took six months for the kids to open up to him.  Fr. Chuck Peterson and Susan Murphy, parish administrator of Immaculate Conception Parish, here, are so well-known and respected in the community that much of their time is spent providing counseling.

Immaculate Conception, which was built by Catholic Extension donors, is a hub of activity in the area and it does everything it possibly can to sustain itself.  As we arrive, we view an entire building – one of its former church buildings – filled with tables of paperback and hardcover books, meticulously sorted by type and in alphabetical order.  The book sale took days of sorting to set up, Susan explained.  It looks to me that it would have taken months.  In the next building an entire “rummage” sale is set up, providing more income for the church and clothing and supplies needed by the people.

Fr. Chuck Peterson in Immaculate Conception, a church built by Catholic Extension donors.

Under Fr. Chuck’s direction, Immaculate Conception is a very inclusive parish community, celebrating the cultural heritage of the people with the richness of the faith.  Ten languages are spoken in the parish and for Pentecost Fr. Chuck had parishioners create banners with the “Our Father” in their native tongue.  Thirty line the walls.

Fr. Chuck and the diocese are intent on training the Yu-pic people to take leadership positions in the church and they have successfully embraced a diaconate training program that “blends Roman Catholicism with the gifts of the Native culture.”

Catholicism is strong and vibrant in Bethel, nurtured by caring people who have a great respect for the people they serve.  It is a privilege to witness the church in its many forms, but true to its adoration of the Word and the Eucharist.

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications

Never Give Up

Never give up.  That is the attitude of Catholics in rural Virginia.  Last week, I met with communities where Catholic Extension has provided support and others in which we are exploring ways to provide new support.  These people are worth getting to know.

Dillanie is a Catholic student committed to her faith in spite of the many obstacles.

I met Dillanie, a 19-year old college student, who converted to Catholicism last year.  She jokes that she hit a “Catholic Grand Slam” when she entered the church by making a profession of faith, baptism, first Eucharist and Confirmation several months before starting college.  That was arguably her Catholic honeymoon.  Now she attends University of Virginia at Wise, where there is no Catholic campus ministry and no parish.  She does not have a car to drive to the nearest parish 15 miles away.  Dillanie admits that she gets heavy flak for being Catholic from her fellow students.  This, however, does not stop her from practicing her faith.  Every Sunday, she asks one of her Protestant classmates to drive her to church, where she attends Sunday Mass by herself. “It’s very difficult when there’s no support system,” she said

Because she has been so unapologetic about her commitment to her faith, other Catholic students are now beginning to surface on campus.  But, without coordination or leadership, Catholic students find it hard to get a community going.  Catholic Extension is in discussion with the Diocese of Richmond about how we can support the college students of this southwestern Appalachia region of Virginia.

Tazwelle, VA nestled in the Appalachian hills, is in danger of losing its soul and its future to rampant drug use among the youth.

The young people of this area are fighting for more than just their spiritual lives, as I learned from the parishioners of St. Theresa in Tazewell, Virginia, a parish of about 100 families that covers several counties of southwestern Virginia.  Since the mid-‘80s they have watched the addictive Oxycontin drug decimate their youth.  “We have a major drug problem here.  Everyone has been touched by it one way or another,” said Pat.  Last year the parish buried a 23 year-old woman who overdosed on the drug.  In spite of this, the parishioners have not lost hope. “We are few in number and big in faith,” said Kathy.  “All of us have had struggles in these small parishes, but ‘the Church’ is us, and we’re not going to give up. We are Catholic to the bone.”  These are powerful words for a community facing such an uphill battle.

In partnership with the diocese, Catholic Extension would like to develop Catholic young adult leaders who can provide companionship, purpose and the gift of faith to the youth in this area.

Fr. Dan Kelly wears a constant smile as he visits the orchard camps.

I met Fr. Dan Kelly, pastor of St. Mary in Lovingston, Virginia, and St. Francis of Assisi in Amherst, Virginia.  Both churches have been supported by Catholic Extension in the past six years to help build new facilities for these growing communities.  I quickly realized the cause of this growth:  Fr. Dan is perhaps the most energetic and outgoing 73-year old I’ve ever encountered.  Having absolutely no intentions of retiring or slowing down, Fr. Dan faithfully pastors his two churches and somehow finds the time to minister to nine different field worker camps in the area.  In spite of his age and his work load, he will not stop.

Beto, an orchard worker and proud Catholic, shows the image sown into his scapular of St. Toribio Romo, a 20th century Martyr.

He took us to one of these camps to introduce us to the men who work the orchards.  Away from their wives and children, and their faith community, they labor six days a week for nine straight months in the peach and apple industries.  The men are delighted to see Fr. Dan, who shows up with a full kettle of spaghetti that he prepared himself.  With the Irish twinkle in his eyes, Fr. Dan tells jokes to the workers over dinner, speaking Spanish with his endearing Gringo accent.  Beto, one of the workers, said that all the men are very Catholic, and they feel privileged to practice their faith with the help of Fr. Dan.

Out of their struggles, Catholics of Virginia have been conditioned to walk by faith.  They are building a foundation upon which Catholic Extension, in partnership with these refreshingly determined communities, can help create a foundation for a stronger Catholic Church that can serve as the compassionate hands of Christ for an area in need.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management