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

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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

“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.

“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

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

Doing the Math: What the Numbers are Telling Us

Numbers tell a powerful story of what is happening in the Church.  They also help quantify the progress as well as the challenges.  As I return from my travels in the Southeast coastal region of Charleston and Savannah, there are some astounding numbers grabbing my attention.

1 for every 100,000. 

In the Diocese of Charleston, there are currently four paid leaders who work with the Hispanic youth – 400,000 in total.  Although the Catholic population is growing rapidly, due in large part to the growth of the youthful Hispanic community, Catholics still comprise only five percent of the population.  Catholic Extension is discussing how we can help the diocese get more youth leaders for the Hispanic community.  “If we don’t get on board to do something, we can wave goodbye to them,” said Jerry, the diocesan director of youth and young adults.

Sr. Susan

Sr. Susan of St. Cyprian in Georgetown, SC proudly shows the kitchen out of which 23,000 meals a year are provided to the hungry.

1,300. 

This is the number of parishioners Sister Sandra of St. Cyprian in Georgetown, South Carolina, has single-handedly cultivated.  She is in charge of ministering to the Hispanics in her parish, and there are no clergy or other religious sisters in the area to help her out.  “What is your secret to success?” I asked Sr. Sandra, who operates out of an office located in a windowless storage unit where the roof is leaking and the carpet perfumed with mildew.  “We just try to help people see how essential our faith is,” she said.  From October to December Sister Sandra organizes 46 straight nights of prayer—a traveling novena which involves thousands of participants.  Each night it’s held in a unique home with food and festivities.  Her determination, unlike her facilities and equipment, remains intact.

Over 2,000. 

This is the number of volunteers that Sr. Susan, a daughter of Charity at St. Cyprian, coordinates on an annual basis.  Volunteers are Catholic and non-Catholic and they come from all over the county to work in one of the four non-profits operating out of the parish.  Together they assist 305 women in crisis pregnancies; teach English as a second language classes; reach out to those living with HIV/AIDS; serve 23,000 meals a year in their soup kitchen and provide clothing, medicine and emergency utility assistance to the poor.  It’s a huge and inspiring effort.   “Parishioners are involved in everything we do,” said Sr. Susan, who talks fast, indicative of the fact that she has a lot on her mind.  Catholic Extension is exploring opportunities to support St. Cyprian as it works to grow even more.

Mary Lou

Mary Lou, a Catholic who works at one of non-profits operating out of St. Cyprian, points to pictures of the many healthy infants and toddlers whose well-being can be attributed to work of this organization.

One. 

This is the total number of staff at Holy Family parish in Metter, Georgia.  She is a woman religious named Sr. Mary, and her salary is supported by Catholic Extension.  Sr. Mary is responsible for managing the activities of this church, which include a robust religious education program, a food pantry, clothing assistance, and migrant outreach.  It is the only Catholic church in the county.  “We love Sister Mary,” said Carol, a long-time parishioner and volunteer. “I’ve watched this church grow and I want that level of person for my grandchildren.”

3 days. 

This is the minimum number of days each week Mrs. “Lala” volunteers at her local church of St. Rose of Lima in rural Baxley, Georgia, which is supported by Catholic Extension with a small operating grant.   And it’s not as if she has nothing better to do with her time.  She is the mother of two boys and she owns a “pine straw” business that employs 25.  “My faith is the most important thing in my life,” she remarked.  Mrs. “Lala” teaches religious education to 40 children, runs the youth group for 30 teens and young adults, and organizes various other activities for this mission parish of 120 families.  Her tireless efforts are having an impact.  Each year the church continues to grow, and the youth see her as a trusted leader, often calling her to share their hardships and seek advice.

Lala

“Lala” is determined to help the young Catholics of her rural community. They face many challenges.

The numbers speak volumes about the progress we’ve made and where we still have a long way to go.  Catholic Extension remains committed to these dioceses to help seize the opportunities before us to ensure the bright future of our Church in the Southeast.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management