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

Putting a Price on the Invaluable

During my recent trip to Puerto Rico, I met the extraordinary Missionaries of Villaregia in the Diocese of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The Missionaries are a congregation of 16 men and women who minister to the spiritually and materially poor.  They work particularly closely with at-risk youth and families in crisis by inviting them into a community of faith and teaching them what can be possible in life when love is at the heart of it.  In any given year, they serve as many as 2,000 youths and hundreds of married couples.

The Missionaries and the local bishop have sought Catholic Extension’s support to build a missionary center that will enable them to significantly expand their ministry.  My visit was intended to assess how Catholic Extension can help.

During my visit, I heard compelling stories from several young adults whose lives have been changed by the Missionaries and who now are part of this movement.

Alejandro and Maria

I met 24-year-old Alejandro.  This law student explained that during his childhood, his parents left him.  He overcame those turbulent years because the Catholic faith community, pastored by the Missionaries, became his family.  It was in this community that he learned he was not alone in the world and that he, too, could be a mentor for others.  Alejandro and his girlfriend, Maria, also a 24-year-old graduate student from the same parish, lead a faith-sharing group at their local university, where they read scripture and support their fellow students.  On weekends, Maria and Alejandro still return to their parish to teach and mentor young children and teens.


Anna is 18-years-old.  She is the direct result of the work of Alejandro and Maria at the missionary center, who have been mentoring her from a young age.  She is also a new university student who is considering how she, too, can give back.  She is even thinking about a vocation to religious life as a sister.


Raymond is 25-years-old and grew up in a home with a father that abused drugs and alcohol. This experience made life as a young person very difficult.  One retreat, led by the Missionaries, changed his life forever.  He realized that life was more than his own circumstances and learned what it meant to be loved by a family. Years later, he and his father reconciled with the help of the Missionaries.  Raymond continues to do anything he can to support this life-changing ministry.

Jennifer – “We are all capable. Nobody’s so poor that they can’t do something for God”

Jennifer is a 24-year-old from a Catholic family. As a teenager, she didn’t think much of herself or believe that she had much to offer the world.  When she met the Missionaries of Villaregia, that all changed.  Jennifer began to believe that God was calling her to do something special.  Since that time, she’s discovered her sense of worth and feels ready to give back.  She felt so strongly about this calling that she joined the Missionaries as a novice sister.  Now in her second year, the future looks bright for Jennifer as she considers how to best live a life of service in the Church.

Maria Magdalena

Maria Magdalena is a 21-year-old nursing student.  She met the Missionaries as a late teen.  They helped her realize that the most beautiful thing a person can do in life is to live it for others.   She now helps by mentoring other young people.  Tears filled her eyes as she pondered the new possibilities that new facility would bring to her ministry.  “We are family and this is a house for everyone.  People will come here to be fed,” she sobbed.

As these stories suggest, the Missionaries have touched the lives of many youths in the community.  Their programs have become so successful that they’ve quickly outgrown their current facilities.

After 14 years of saving and two years of construction, the missionaries are just $800,000 short on cash for making the missionary center a reality.  But, with just $300,000, they can finish the framing and dry wall and begin to use the center, which will accommodate as many as 900 people for gatherings and 200 overnight guests.

Fr. Roberto, who leads the Missionaries, believes that with such a strong foundation of young leaders, the new facility will be bustling with activity in no time.  The only thing that stands in the way of this is a cash shortfall. 

Stay tuned for Catholic Extension’s response.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Hungry for good news?

The airwaves and printing presses were buzzing last week all around Montana, and even nationally. For a change, the buzz was good. The media, including USA Today and the local CBS affiliate, was telling a story of great hope emanating from a tiny town called Browning, located on the plains just east of the continental divide and 50 miles south of the Canadian border.

Lumen Christi Award

Fr. Wall presents Fr. Kohler with Lumen Christi Award

I was lucky enough to be there, one of a group representing Catholic Extension, the narrator of this amazing story. We had come from Chicago, led by Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall, to present our annual Lumen Christi award to Fr. Ed Kohler, a hero of Browning. The name of the award comes from Latin, meaning “light of Christ,” and we award it annually to someone who demonstrates the power of faith to transform lives and communities.

Fr. Kohler, originally from Missoula, Montana, has spent three decades working among the Blackfeet Native people in rural Montana. The 64 year-old “Fr. Ed” is pastor of Little Flower Parish in this town of 3,000, where the average income is around $5,000, and the average life expectancy is not much over 50 years. Depression, alcoholism and addiction are rampant. But in the midst of so much hardship, Fr. Kohler and his parish community inspire hope.

Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person

Chief Earl Old Person is the leader of the Blackfeet nation and spoke at the ceremony. Standing before the crowd wearing his magnificent eagle feather headdress, Chief Earl said, “Our ancestors have always struggled to survive,” but added that people like Fr. Ed and the community of Little Flower make him optimistic about the future of his Nation.

Fr. Kohler gives witness to the transformative power of faith. He gathers his people and nourishes hungry hearts, convincing them to believe in themselves and hope in God.

Little Flower Parish Gym

Consequently, this parish community can be proud of so much. It has robust youth groups; an academically successful Catholic school (grades 4-8) that is the “passport” from poverty to a better future for scores of native children; and a nationally renowned spiritual retreat movement, which has helped thousands of adults free themselves from destructive behavior and addiction .

But back to the scene last week: imagine hundreds of people gathered to celebrate. Community members, tribal leaders, parishioners, local civic leaders, the diocesan bishop (to whom the Blackfeet people have given the name, “Holy Warrior”) all packed in a crowded gymnasium, all thrilled for their beloved Fr. Ed.

Extension Team at Little Flower Parish

The community sang traditional Blackfeet songs in their native tongue, along with religious songs, such as “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art,” delivered in a Country-Cowboy style that was slow, smooth, and twangy. Later, we asked Fr. Ed how the nearly half million dollars of financial support provided by Catholic Extension’s donors has helped his ministry at Little Flower parish. He simply wept. Then he said, “Catholic Extension and its donors are really the light of Christ for us.”

We’re all hungry for good news like this. All of us need to know about the Ed Kohlers and the Little Flower parishes that are reaching amazing heights with stunningly few resources, in the face of tremendous social, economic and spiritual challenge.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Read more about our Lumen Christi Nominee and Catholic Extension.

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