Seeing Great Returns on Our Investments

As we begin 2011, I look back at this past year with a sense of awe at what I’ve seen accomplished by the thousands of people to whom Catholic Extension donors entrusted $18 million dollars of support.

In 2010 I traveled tens of thousands of miles across the United States and its territories, and visited Catholic communities in some of the most forgotten places of our nation.  As I reflect on my visits, I arrive at one conclusion: these are people who are worth investing in.  Everywhere I turn, ordinary men and women have answered the call to serve in extraordinary ways.

Here are some of my experiences from 2010 that demonstrate the extraordinariness of our fellow Catholics and how they have done everything possible to deliver a great return on our investment:

  • Slashing Overhead in Puerto Rico.  I shared lunch with Bishop Inaki of the Diocese of Arecibo, PR.  Now in his mid seventies, Bishop Inaki spoke passionately about how during his nearly twenty–year tenure as bishop he has tried to focus his diocese on the poor.  He is deeply grateful for Catholic Extension’s $200,000 of annual assistance to the most under-resourced parishes in his diocese.  So, in an act of solidarity with the poor and in appreciation of outside donors who desire to fund mission and not overhead, Bishop Inaki has simply never taken a salary.  All he asks from the diocese are the clothes on his back and the shoes on his feet.  This is an interesting way to manage expenses, I remember thinking to myself.
  • Supplying Demand in Arizona.I met with Sr. Mary and Sr. Maureen who are charged with the religious education and community

    Sister Mary (left) and Sister Maureen (right), Daughters of Charity, are part of a powerful team at St. Jude in Tuba City, AZ.

    outreach for St. Jude Parish, in Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation.   Parish collections average only about $600 on a Sunday, so Catholic Extension donors subsidize the humble salaries of the four religious sisters who work at the Church.  How are they breathing life into this community?  Let’s consider the numbers.  Besides the many souls that they’ve fed this past year, the church’s food bank served about 50,000 hungry stomachs.  On top of that, the parish proudly organized a dinner for 2,000 people the week before Thanksgiving.  The sisters and the parishioners were exhausted, but deeply satisfied.

  • Low Cost & High Quality in Tennessee. I met an attorney, Jim, who had blue prints in hand and a smile on his face as he told me his parish’s underdog story.  He is a faithful Catholic man, who volunteers as the parish book-keeper.  With just a little bit of help from Catholic Extension, he was able to bring the first Catholic Church to Fentress County, Tennessee.  For decades, Catholics had been gathering for

    The 3,200 square feet of St. Christopher Church, the first Catholic Church in Fentress County, TN.

    mass at the local Presbyterian Church.  Knowing that the Catholic community of 75 families could never reach its full potential without its own church, Jim led parishioners through the legal paperwork, architectural planning, construction details, and fundraising strategy associated with building a church.  A master at negotiation, Jim got bargains on the land purchase and church construction.  The end result? A new, state-of-the-art church, now named St. Christopher, for a thrifty price of only $650,000.

  • High-Performing Investment in North Carolina. With just a modest-sized grant of $25,000 from Catholic Extension, the Hispanic Evangelization Center in Lenoir, North Carolina, led by the dynamic Fr. Julio Dominguez, has done some impressive things this year.  The

    Fr. Julio with the dedicated leaders who have committed three years to the “School of Faith” program in the Diocese of Charlotte.

    Center has attracted 45 new people to its “School of Faith,” a three-year leadership training for lay Catholics who desire to serve their community.  Additionally, the Center has held two seminars for youth and families, attracting 500 and 700 people respectively, and it hosted a men’s retreat attracting 120 men for a three-day experience.  Not surprisingly, the Center has been identified as a model ministry for the entire diocese.  Fr. Julio told me, “I have witnessed the transforming effect of such a strong religious and spiritual experience in the lives of these [people].”

The stories I share with you are not the exceptions. They are the norm.  These are the heroic people behind the scenes in the Catholic Church across the U.S. , who change lives and bring hope to under-resourced communities.  And, they do all of this at an absurdly low cost.  This is why at Catholic Extension we can say to you with total confidence that “every dollar counts.”

Here’s to a successful 2010, and here’s to an even better 2011.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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

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The saints of the San Solano Mission

St. Catherine’s Church in Topowa, AZ.

A few weeks ago we visited the San Solano Missions located in the tribal lands of the Tohono O’Odham Nation southwest of Tucson. Our short visit was hosted by Fr. Ponchie Vásquez, O.F.M., one of two Franciscan friars whose salaries Catholic Extension supports.  Together with his Franciscan brother Fr. Ignatius DeGroot, O.F.M., Fr. Ponchie is charged with the pastoral care of those living in some three  dozen villages spread out across territory roughly the size of Connecticut. Nearly every village has its own chapel or sacred space, rising up from the sparse desert floor like the countless century-old Saguaro cacti that surround them.  Each, along with an adjacent feast house, is the heart of its spiritual and social life.

Fr. Ponchie Vásquez, one of the Franciscan friars supported by Catholic Extension, smiles proudly in front of St. Catherine’s Chapel.

When we sat with a half dozen residents of the village of South Komlic (don’t try finding it on the map) in one of the simple – and aging – chapels that dot the vast expanse of borderland, we heard the stories of generations of families connected to the land and to the Church through sacred spaces like the one we were sitting in. Stories like those of Jennie Urbina, whose grandmother grew up in South Komlic and remembers her hosting the priest each Sunday after Mass for lunch.

“The Church was part of their life, and part of my life.  It is a special place to come for encouragement, emotionally and spiritually.  We’re all related.  This is my home and these are my family,” Jennie explained about her neighbors sitting around her.

For Louis Norris, the chapel is the place where the past, present and future meet.

“We honor the saints here, the same way we honor each other,” he reflected. Honoring his neighbors does not stop at the chapel door for Louis.  He assists Fr. Ponchie by taking communion to the elderly. He was visiting 21 or 22 men and women the last time he counted.  His outreach is simple but profound. “I’m connected to them and inspired by what they say.  And I keep it in my heart and then give it back here, the church.”

The patronal feast day of each village is the pinnacle of Catholic life here. Most villages will host a big feast day celebration every other year to honor the saint to whom their chapel is dedicated.  Sitting in St. Jude’s humble chapel in South Komlic, no bigger than 400 square feet and home to more than six decades of sacred liturgies and community gatherings, I began to understand the deep connection this unique community has to each of its chapels and the significance of Catholic Extension’s support.

“The people believe that the chapel is literally the home of the saint. That’s where they live,” Fr. Ponchie explained. He described how on feast days everyone brings the statue of the saint they keep in their home to the chapel for the celebration. On those special occasions, the chapel will be filled with saints.

While we had missed St. Jude’s celebration by just a few days and all of the statues of him and his friends had made their way back to places of honor in the homes nearby, a few saints still remained – the living saints of St. Jude’s Chapel – faithful men and women like Fr. Ponchie, Louis, Jennie and their neighbors, whose collective memory and daily commitments keep the Catholic faith alive for the people of the San Solano Missions.

Who are the saints that keep the faith alive in your community?

Louis Norris (far left), who assists Fr. Ponchie by taking communion to the elderly, stands together with his Catholic family outside St. Jude’s.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants

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