No Catholic Left Behind (Alaska Part 1)

Ever since Fr. Wall joined Catholic Extension as president in 2007, the dioceses of Alaska – Juneau and Fairbanks along with the Archdiocese of Anchorage – have been encouraging him to visit,  to experience this unique expression of the Church that is supported by Catholic Extension donors.  This week we landed in Juneau, the smallest diocese in the country in terms of population, but one in which nine priests and one bishop “shepherd a flock” spread out over 700 miles, the size of Florida, and much of it navigable only by boat or plane.  The severe weather, vast distances and time it takes to travel are mind-boggling.  The spirit and faith of these Catholics is awe-inspiring.  The needs are great.

Bishop Burns of Juneau welcomes Fr. Wall to Shrine of St. Terese, a Catholic landmark on SE AK coastline.

According to locals, Alaska has the highest rate of suicide in the entire U.S, double the rest of the country.  It also has the highest rate of domestic violence.  The sheer beauty of southeast Alaska – snow-capped mountains and pristine glacial waters – can overshadow these tough realities. Yet, one becomes inspired by the faith and tenacity of the people coming together at the church even when they can’t have a priest on a regular basis.  (Catholics comprise about 10 percent of the population; more staggering is that approximately 60 percent of Alaskan’s are “unchurched.”)

We traveled by boat to Tenakee Springs (pop 131) where parishioners start pouring into the newly renovated St. Francis Chapel the minute the boat docks.  One parishioner has renovated the chapel with his own hands; another’s son-in-law has built the beautiful, rustic altar; another has  painstakingly repaired the broken pieces of the crucifix.  These are hands-on Catholics ready to celebrate the Eucharist any time a priest comes.  Catholic Extension has built or helped renovate nearly every church in Alaska and these parishioners – a faithful, outspoken bunch – are grateful for any chance to receive the Word or the Eucharist.  They are hungry for more.

Karla Donaghey of Diocese of Juneau restored the broken, worn crucifix for St. Francis Chapel in Tenakee Springs, AK (pop 104).

The next stop is Hoonah, a predominantly Native American community of 700 nearly two hours from Juneau.  Tragedy struck here last summer when two local policemen were gunned down for no apparent reason by a citizen.  The diocese is still trying to support the parishioners of Sacred Heart and the community as they recover from their shock and grief.

We celebrate Mass with Bishop Burns and Fr. Wall, among others.  One parishioner arrives in a wheelchair, delighted with the opportunity to experience the liturgy.  He prays a special intention “for those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse.”  He is accompanied by his friend, a woman, and they clutch hands as the Mass unfolds.  She has designed and painted Sacred Heart’s nameplate – another sign of the love and care these parishioners pour into their churches.

Back in Juneau, we learn that 32 young Catholics have worked tirelessly to raise the funds to attend World Youth Day in Madrid this summer.  Spaghetti suppers, car washes, raffle tickets, “chorebusters,” movie nights, and the presence of “kids at the church all the time running fundraisers” – coupled with funds from Catholic Extension donors – are making the trip possible.  It’s so important for these kids “to see and experience the universal church firsthand,” explained John, their youth ministry director.

Bishop Burns celebrating Mass in Juneau at the Catheral of the Nativity of the BVM.

With a diocese this vast, investing in technology is top of mind, explained Bishop Burns.  He’s already using Skype to communicate with youth groups too far away to reach.  It will be critical for adult faith formation as well as lay leader training.

We often hear that it’s our duty to ensure “no child is left behind.”  Visiting the Diocese of Juneau makes you realize that it’s also imperative to make sure “no Catholic is left behind.”  Thanks to Catholic Extension donors, and the work of some very determined, dedicated people, it’s working.

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications

Young Catholics in Youngstown: Bringing New Life to Communities Accustomed to Tragedy

It’s hard not to be intimidated sometimes, or to feel discouraged or fearful about what’s happening in the world.  However, the oft-spoken scriptural adage, “Be not afraid,” is in the forefront of my mind as I return from Youngstown, Ohio.  In 2010, Catholic Extension started supporting this diocese of the Rust Belt.  The commitment came as the diocese was facing great evil in its inner city.

In January of 2010, Angeline, an 80-year-old parishioner of St. Dominic, was fatally shot as she was leaving church in an apparent botched mugging.  In September 2010, tragedy again struck when two 75-year-old parishioners were fired upon 12 times in their car.  Tom, the husband, was killed by a bullet to the head, and Jackie, his wife, was shot in the leg.  Although Jackie survived, part of her leg had to be amputated.  The couple had been “mistaken” for rival gang members.

New Hope

A family member of one of the deceased spreads dirt on a vacant lot to plant seeds that will yield new plants as well as new hope.

Parishioners of this resilient community on Youngstown’s south-side have refused to let these incidents darken their spirits.  They realize that it’s a moment to “be not afraid.”  To support them, Catholic Extension and the Diocese of Youngstown are collaborating on “Project Grow: Planting Hope.”  The project engages community members, parishioners, and teenage Catholic students from across the diocese to restore hope to the neighborhood by cleaning up junk and planting grass and vegetables in lots where drug houses once stood.  While the project will eliminate urban blight, it also serves as a means to engage the diocese’s young Catholics, to teach them the value of service and to help them see Christ in everybody and everywhere, including in these struggling neighborhoods.

Shuttered Factory

A shuttered factory in Youngstown, Ohio

On May 21, with support from Catholic Extension donors, more than 120 young Catholics hit the streets of Youngstown in various locations to take the neighborhoods back.  The evening before their work began, the youth were prepped with prayer by participating in Eucharistic Adoration.  They were instructed to see Christ not only in the chapel but in the streets of Youngstown, and to discover for themselves what it literally means to renew the face of the Earth.

“These young people are a symbol of hope for us,” said Fr, Greg, St. Dominic pastor, who spoke as kids worked around him in the 80-degree sun picking up old liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia from a vacant lot next to the parish, while planting grass seed to create a playing field. “Catholic Extension wants to instill the Catholic faith more deeply and this is what we are doing today,” he added.

Family members of the deceased also were among the workers.  I spoke to the nieces of one of the slain.  “We will not let this violence define us.  But being out here today helps give us some closure,” one said.  More importantly, the family members wanted to “stand with the parish” in its effort to fight back.

Of Service

Teens experience what it’s like to be of service.

John Drummond, a recent graduate of Ohio State University as well as an alum of the Catholic high school down the street from St. Dominic, was in charge of logistics.  “I think this service has taught kids that your community is much larger than the 10 houses on your block,” he noted.  He gives these kids  credit.  “These kids are really inspiring,” said John, who is only in his early 20s.  “This generation gets a bad rap because people assume ‘these kids don’t want to do anything; they just want to play on their iPhones,’ but these kids are working hard.”

What’s the impact of this experience on the kids? You be the judge.

“This teaches us to help your neighbor,” said Taylor, a high school freshman.

“Poverty is not just in other countries, it’s right here in the U.S.” said Taiwana, also a freshman.

“I want to do this again soon,” said Mahia.

Change has to start somewhere.  On May 21 we took a great step forward for inner-city parishioners as well as for young Catholics from across the Diocese of Youngstown.  Catholic Extension will continue supporting the diocese to solidify and grow this hands-on evangelization.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Alabama Tornados Teach Why Faith Matters

People who do heavy physical training and exercise typically do so in anticipation of a big game or race.  In a similar way, people of faith do “spiritual exercises” that ultimately prepare them to transform the world.  Well-exercised Catholics are prepared to do “heavy lifting” in the world.  At least that’s what I learned on a recent trip to northwest Alabama, where just three weeks ago multiple F-4 and F-5 tornadoes ripped through the area, carving paths of total destruction.

The tornado destruction is shocking. Faith communities are prepared to provide not only immediate relief but long-term support to those in need.

Located amid the tornado-ravaged areas is Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Winfield, Alabama, which is a four-county parish whose territory is the same size as the state of Rhode Island.  Catholics are only 0.5 percent of the population in this Bible-belt stronghold.  The parish, built and funded by Catholic Extension with ongoing operational support, unites the 200 Catholic families in these four counties.   Each Sunday the parish prepares them to be lights for a community where the needs are great.

The tornadoes have complicated what already was a challenging situation.  Driving around, one notices the abundance of shuttered businesses and plants, signaling the community’s economic struggles.  Seeing the areas impacted by the tornadoes is even more sobering.  Hackleburg, Alabama, looks as if it has been hit by a nuclear bomb.  There is no more civilization, no more plant life or trees, just a surreal scene of tangled and lifeless rubble and wreckage.

Jonathan is a local parishioner who “quit his trucking job and cashed in his 401(k)” to pursue his dream of serving his local community.  He left his job on April 12.  Just 15 days later the tornadoes came, killing scores of people and leaving hundreds more homeless and destitute.  He feels the timing was not coincidental and that the Holy Spirit is calling him to do something even more than he had originally envisioned for the people in his community and on behalf of his beloved Catholic parish.

Jonathan opens an empty freezer that normally stocks frozen food and meats for hungry families. His goal is to fill the freezer.

He has been rallying support and services from the Catholics in his parish during the past three weeks, as well as collaborating with volunteers of other denominations.  He tried to fight back tears as he recounted to me his standard message at Mass: “As we go out to God’s family, friends and neighbors to practice God’s mercy, putting the corporal and spiritual deeds of mercy in action, we will identify and fill the local physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of our neighbors.”

 “We know exactly what our faith is calling us to do in this moment,” said Susan, another parishioner I met, when referring to her charitable readiness in the wake of the tornadoes.  She is a seasoned veteran of service who for years has worked with her granddaughter sorting clothing and food at one of the parish’s outreach centers.

Almost as if triggered by reflex, people of faith snap into action. Or, as in the cases of Susan and Jonathan, they step it up a notch.

Volunteers from the local parish sort items at the Church’s center for social concerns.

“God has never said ‘no’ to us, so why should we say ‘no’ to Him,” said Teresa, who is the pastoral assistant at Holy Spirit.  For years, she and others have been working tirelessly to support the needs of their community through their outreach center.  In response to the tornadoes, they are working on an 18-month plan, because they expect the demands of the community to spike after all the national hype  subsides and the out-of-state volunteers leave.  Parishioners of Holy Spirit are motivated by genuine love and concern, regardless of the day’s headlines.  Therefore, when the others leave, Holy Spirit parishioners will still be there, doing what they’ve done for years.  And Catholic Extension will continue journeying with this parish, ensuring that they can still practice their faith and bring hope to a community where the needs are great.

If you have ever asked yourself or been asked the question “Why be a Catholic? Why be a Christian?,” I think I just found the answer in Alabama.  We are Catholic Christians so that we may be filled with gifts that we can then pass on to the world.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management