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

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domenic, age 3; and Kate, his mother.

Domenic, age 3; and Kate, his mother.

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

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

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

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

“Driving” Improved Access to Catholic Schools

We arrived at All Saints Catholic School in Richmond, Virginia before 7 a.m..  The parking lot was empty and the sun was just rising.  The principal, Ken Soistman, came out to greet us.  He pointed at a cute little white bus that could hold about twenty kids and said, “That’s the bus.”  He was referring to the transportation that Catholic Extension funded for this semester, so that the Hispanic children whose parents could not drive them to school could start attending All Saints this year.  This is a part of Catholic Extension’s pilot program to better understand how transportation impacts Hispanic participation in schools.  Like many of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Richmond, All Saints had tried to encourage more Hispanic children in the area to come to the Catholic school by offering tuition assistance.  But even financial help could not bring families into the school community.

The Catholic Extension funded school bus ensures Catholic school access for Hispanic children in the Diocese of Richmond..

The Catholic Extension funded school bus ensures Catholic school access for Hispanic children in the Diocese of Richmond.

The fact is that many families simply can’t get their children to school; they only have one car, and parents have to leave for work before school opens.  So now, thanks to this bus, more children are able to come.  The hope is that more Hispanic children will enroll in All Saints Catholic School, as well as many of the other Catholic schools across the Diocese of Richmond.  That is why this bus is on Catholic Extension’s Christmas Wish List; hopefully the bus will be funded by donors for the second half of the year, too.

Dioceses across the country are trying to attract more Hispanic children to Catholic schools.  While over 40% of our country’s Catholics are Hispanic, less than 4% of the children who are in Catholic schools are Hispanic.  Since 2000, more than 1,400 Catholic schools have closed.  If recruitment efforts are successful, more Catholic schools can remain open, and more Catholic Hispanic children will have a chance at an education that will help them build a solid Catholic foundation to guide them through the rest of their lives.

Students on All Saints Catholic School's new school bus.

Students on All Saints Catholic School's new school bus.

In Richmond, they have created the Segura Initiative to recruit more Hispanic children to the Catholic schools. We met Sister Inma Cuest-Ventura, one of the people working on this initiative; she has already had some great success.  In order for this project to be successful, there needs to be people within the school who speak Spanish.  They have also learned how to engage the help of the madrinas, which is Spanish for “godmothers.”  These are the trusted women of the neighborhood, whom others listen to.  One of the madrinas at All Saints, Paulita, not only works at the local parish and has her child in the school, she has offered to translate into Spanish the letters the teachers send home. Paulita’s own son had been unhappy at the local public school; he was ashamed to say that he spoke Spanish because he didn’t want to be different from the other kids.  Now at All Saints, he is not only proud to answer questions in Spanish, but also says that he loves the school because all the other kids are Catholic like him.  This is a big deal in Richmond, where only 3% of the population is Catholic.

Nitzia and her daughter.

Nitzia and her daughter.

Nitzia, another madrina, has two daughters at All Saints in Pre-K and second grade.  Nitzia said that her daughter now insists that they say grace before dinner because “That’s what we do at school.”  Her other daughter doesn’t call it All Saints, she calls it “God’s School.”  In August, as Nitzia was eight months pregnant and getting ready to go into the hospital to deliver her baby, she was running around trying to get her daughters’ uniforms so they could go to All Saints.  Her friends and family told her not to go through all the difficulty of getting her girls to the Catholic school.  She responded, “No, I was doing it for my daughters.  It would be better for them.”

Ken Soitsman, Principal, with some of his students at All Saints Catholic School.

Ken Soistman, Principal, with some of his students at All Saints Catholic School.

Principal Ken explained that it is painful to see some families have to leave All Saints because they can’t afford it.  He said: “For some of the parents and grandparents, I can’t say no. I have a grandparent who comes in and says, ‘Where I live, if I can’t get an option, it’s not a question of the education, it’s a question of whether my child will be alive when they’re sixteen.’  You can’t say no to that.”

We hope that Richmond’s success, due to people like Ken and Sister Inma and the madrinas, can serve as a model for other dioceses.  Our visit to All Saints will help to inform Catholic Extension’s future strategy to build capacity in Catholic schools by helping them fill seats, so that more principals like Ken can say “yes” to those who want to attend Catholic school.

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

A Sign of Hope: Proyecto Desarrollo Humano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sister Pat McGraw teaches ESL classes.

Sister Pat McGraw teaches ESL classes.

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

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

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

Doctors and dentists regularly volunteer their time at the clinic.

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

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

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

God is good!

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

An Invitation to Gather: OSU Campus Ministry

We arrived at St. John the Evangelist University Parish and Newman Center, at Oklahoma State University, at 8AM. OSU has had a relationship with Catholic Extension since 1977; and this coming January, the OSU Campus Ministry will be receiving another grant from Catholic Extension. But we were also eager to meet these dynamic college students to see if we could connect them with leadership roles in the Church after graduation.

Our plan was to meet with Fr. Stuart Crevcoure and some of his campus ministry staff, as well as some of the college students who are active in campus ministry at OSU. I had my doubts as to how many students would show up for an 8AM meeting! Remembering my own college days, anything before 9AM was considered to be the crack of dawn.

Fr. Stuart Crevcoure and Fr. Jack Wall, with some of the students who are active in Campus Ministry at OSU.

Yet when we arrived, there were 15 college students already there! Not only were they awake, but they were smiling and eager to welcome us. Just their presence at that breakfast meeting was a witness to how important their Catholic faith is to them. Yet as we listened to their stories, we were even more moved by their passion for their faith and their desire to share their faith with other students at OSU.

The Newman Center sponsors a vast number of opportunities for faith sharing and fellowship: they have Bible Study, Rosary, Wednesday night Mass, and Praise and Worship to name a few. But what’s more incredible is the number of students who come every Sunday night for Mass, followed by dinner. They told us that a couple hundred students show up every week and that number grows during the school year! Many of the students who come aren’t even Catholic but have been invited by friends.

That’s what ran through all of the students’ stories about how they got involved with Campus Ministry at OSU – someone had invited them. Michael, a freshman from Wichita, said, “When I started here a few weeks ago, Anna, who is also from my home town, invited me to come along to Mass and so I did.” Many of the students credited Jenny, a senior, as having called them and asked them to come with her to Mass. To be invited, to be called by name, is so important to all of us, but it’s crucial for young adults. They need to feel welcomed, that their being there matters. It starts with being in relationship with others, making a friend, and then inviting that friend to come share in the faith that you have found. That was the model Jesus gave us, and these students are still following it. Every student there credited another student with getting them involved in Campus Ministry. Many students also mentioned Kelly, a former seminarian who is now ordained, as the reason they are so active in their faith.

Jenny and other students active in Campus Ministry at OSU.

A lot of the students told us about growing up in rural parts of Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas, where they were a part of the only Catholic family in town. I’m from the Northeast, where there are large numbers of Catholics, so it was foreign to me to imagine what it would be like to grow up in the minority, in a place where you weren’t invited to certain events because you were Catholic. But what struck me was that it was that experience of being in the minority that made these young Catholic men and women stronger in their faith, more articulate about what they believe in, more eager to be in community with others who shared their faith. They even volunteered to staff an “Ask a Catholic” table outside the student center at OSU, so that they could invite other students to learn about their faith.

Andrew received his Confirmation while attending OSU this year.

Many people talk about the young people being the future of our church. But in reality, they are the church. Right here, right now. It is up to us to do whatever we can to help support young adults like these students at OSU, so that they can grow in their faith while they are in college; and so that they are able to continue to grow in their faith after graduation, as young adults. Fr. Stuart pointed out to us a large tree that they had painted on their wall, with paper leaves attached to it. Each leaf had the name of a student who had been baptized or confirmed over the past year. Through Catholic Extension, we can help the number of leaves on that tree grow, at OSU and at other colleges across the country.

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