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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Meeting People Halfway

I recently had the privilege of visiting communities in Idaho that are supported by Catholic Extension.  The Catholic community is spread across a diocese spanning the entire state of Idaho.  Catholics represent only about 11% of the population and many of the communities are rural and working class who are struggling in the wake of this uncertain economy.  Needless to say, it’s a bit of a challenge to create a vibrant church experience in these circumstances.  Yet, everywhere I went in Idaho I encountered passionate Catholics who are deeply committed to the faith, doing their absolute best to reach marginalized populations, and generate growth in the Church.

I visited St. Jerome parish in southern Idaho, where Catholic Extension provides support for pastoral programs.  This is a bi-cultural parish that has done an excellent job of figuring out how to welcome everybody.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

Just ten years ago, their Sunday Mass attracted no more than 300 people.  But today, Mass is attended by 1,500 people, including families that drive as far as 70 miles to get there every week.

The parish offers religious education in two languages to hundreds of children, and classrooms are packed to capacity.   “We used to have very small classes,” said Katie, the director of religious education who grew up in the parish, “This year we got to the number 300 and I thought, ‘what are we going to do with all these kids?’”  Parishioners acknowledge that this type of logistical issue is in fact a blessing.

Fr. Ron, the pastor, said that “We just try to meet people halfway.”

This mentality of ‘meeting people halfway’ is at the heart of St. Jerome’s effort to feed hundreds of people and families on a weekly basis out of the parish food pantry.

St. Jerome Parish food pantry.

St. Jerome parish food pantry, Martha & Mary's.

This spirit of welcome also drives their work with local teenagers, many of whom are facing hard decisions about drugs and gangs.   A young adult named Gio, who works with the 60+ members of the youth group, had his share of struggles as a teen growing up in Jerome, Idaho.  But one parish retreat called “Come and See” changed his life so much so, that thereafter he committed himself to bringing moral strength and faith to today’s young people who face the same challenges that he once did.

Up the road two hours, I paid a visit to St. Paul’s Newman Center at Boise State University, where Catholic Extension has provided operations support for the past several years.  There too, I learned about all the ways that this ministry is ‘meeting people halfway.’

The worn out, orange carpeting and the musty couches with out-of-style patterns that adorn this facility would suggest that this campus ministry has seen better days.  However, the opposite is true.  This ministry’s impact continues to increase.   I met a group of students over lunch that seemed to have just as much confidence talking about their Catholic faith as they did discussing their beloved university football team.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

At least three students shared similar stories about how Catholicism had never been a part of their lives growing up.  But, they were invited to St. Paul’s Newman Center by their peers and have decided to become fully practicing Catholics after experiencing the joy of this faith community.

As many as 12 of the approximately 300 students who are part of St. Paul’s Newman Center are currently considering vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We met a young woman who came into the Church at Easter Vigil in 2009 through St. Paul’s RCIA program.  She is now seriously discerning a vocation to religious life and credits the supportive faith community of St. Paul with giving her the courage to do so.

When the Church meets people where they are at, it increases its ability to reach more.  The Catholic communities in Boise have figured this out and used this wisdom to their advantage.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension

Keeping our Traditions Alive

I spent Good Friday in Lenoir, NC, located near the eastern edge the Appalachian Mountain range.  Catholic Extension supports a parish there called St. Francis of Assisi, which has experienced extraordinary growth in the last three years.  During that short span of time, Sunday Mass attendance has more than tripled; religious education enrollments are five times more than what they were just three years ago; and as many as 70 lay leaders are taking on various ministries that serve the parish and the larger community.  If you’re like me, you wouldn’t normally expect to find such a thriving Catholic community in a relatively small town of North Carolina.  But, something special is happening here.

Parishioners of all ages gather early to witness the traditional "living" Stations of the Cross.

The parish’s leaders, Father Julio Dominguez and Sister Joan Pearson, who arrived here three years ago, are both innovative people constantly thinking of new ways for this church community to reach more people and create new leaders.   Although they are always ready to try new things to make the Catholic faith speak to people, I quickly learned that their secret to success has been as much about getting back to the basics of the Catholic tradition and incorporating customs that have proven to sustain the faith for centuries.

That is why parishioners in Lenoir spent more than three months preparing for a “living” Stations of the Cross, which was open to the entire community on Good Friday.  Sister Joan expected attendance to jump this year, and sure enough, 600 people showed up for this mid-weekday Stations of the Cross.  Given that the church only seats about 300 people, the Stations of the Cross had to be done outside.  To enhance the experience, parishioners act out the scenes of each of the 14 stations in full costume and are accompanied by music and brief reflections.

The crowd drops to their knees, moved by the power of the 11th Station of the Cross.

At the 11th station, as the cross and the actor playing Christ were physically lifted up by the Roman soldiers and placed in the ground for crucifixion, I heard a collective gasp sweep through the hundreds of people as they came to their knees on the grass.  Tears filled the eyes of many, as they reflected upon God’s love expressed through the cross and how that cross has been part of all of our lives.

What impressed me the most about this experience, however, was the endless sea of toddlers, children and teens who were present at this event.  Just as the Stations of the Cross were starting, I happened to turn around to see a steady stream of parents pushing strollers across the Church parking lot as they made their way to the stations.   It felt as if they were literally carting in the next generation of Catholics to hear the same stories that our ancestors told.

Traditions like the "living" Stations of the Cross engage the parish youth in a compelling and inspiring way.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the afternoon was when a young boy, no more than five years old, broke ranks with the rest of us and wove his way through the actors to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he was being taken down from the cross.  The boy reached out and tenderly touched the lifeless feet the Jesus.  I have a feeling that for years to come that boy will remember his brief encounter with Christ this Good Friday.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension

A New Church for St. Mary Presentation

Each year, nearly 100 parishes in the United States receive Catholic Extension funding to make critical facility improvements.

St. Mary Presentation Parish in Deer Park, Washington, recently celebrated the one year anniversary of their new church.  Watch the video below to see how a $50,000 grant from Catholic Extension helped this parish build a new church to accommodate their thriving faith community in the Diocese of Spokane.


To help support Catholic communities like St. Mary Presentation, please consider making a gift today.

— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications, Catholic Extension

“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

Bringing the “Outside” Church “Inside”

“There is a sense of unity in that when we go to Mass, we are going to Mass with you — the entire Church.”

This quote in and of itself may not seem profound for the average Catholic.  We believe that when we go to Mass we are celebrating with our fellow parishioners, as well as with the universal Church.  Nonetheless, when I heard this remark from Frank, I rediscovered its meaning.

Clements Unit houses more that 3,700 Texas inmates.

Clements Unit houses more that 3,700 Texas inmates.

Frank is not your typical Catholic.  He is serving a life sentence at Clements Unit, a prison in Amarillo, Texas, where the average sentence is 65 years.  Despite his separation from the rest of the world, Frank does not feel alone.  He and approximately 1,500 inmates across seven prisons in the Diocese of Amarillo are ministered to by a team of five priests, eight deacons and 18 lay volunteers who devote their time to bringing the “outside” Church to the “inside.”

During a recent trip to the Diocese of Amarillo, Catholic Extension had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Frank, Wiley and Mike­— three practicing Catholic inmates within the walls of Clements Unit prison.  Each serving a considerable sentence.

Lay volunteer Roy (left) and Deacon Mike (right) minister to hundreds of Catholic inmates in the Diocese of Amarillo.

Lay volunteer Roy (far left) and Deacon Mike (far right) minister to hundreds of Catholic inmates like Frank, Wiley and Mike (left to right).

“We try to do all the same things that you do in all your churches,” Frank stated.  During 2010, the Diocese of Amarillo’s Prison Ministry held 167 Masses and 298 Communion services.  The inmates yearn for the Masses and services and any written materials they can have — including Catholic calendars.  Because prison regulations prohibit spiral-bound materials, every year the wife of one of the prison ministry volunteers removes the spiral bindings from nearly 100 Catholic Extension calendars and carefully rebinds them with yarn.  These calendars help the prisoners follow the Church’s liturgical calendar and are a valued acknowledgement of their faith.  In September, Catholic Extension awarded a $50,000 grant to the Diocese of Amarillo’s Prison Ministry to help sustain it through operational support.

Because priests are stretched thin, inmates and volunteers often gather and lead lay services or simply sing and pray.  Recent policy changes required the “prison parish” to break up into smaller services spread across different sections of the prison.  Though this has created additional strain on the priests, one inmate saw it as an evangelization opportunity.  Celebrating in areas outside of their chapel gives them the chance to reach out to other inmates.  Mike described, “If I can reach someone and tell them they have value, they begin to grow.  As they begin to pray their self-esteem rises and eventually they’ll reach out and bring a friend, too.”

The Diocese of Amarillo's Prison Ministry offers spiritual familiarity in an otherwise isolated environment.

The Diocese of Amarillo's Prison Ministry offers spiritual familiarity in an otherwise isolated environment.

The last question we asked before heading back into the “free world” was, “What would it be like without this prison ministry’s presence in Clements?”  I listened to a few answers about how the Church is a positive, stable and familiar presence in an otherwise gloomy place, I heard these men recount that the Church’s presence makes a tremendous impact on their daily lives, that the guards even at times ask them why they go to Mass and what they get out of it.  Perhaps Wiley’s answer summed it up best. “Can you imagine what this place would be like if we weren’t praying?” he asked.  “Who would even be able to work here?”

— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications, Catholic Extension

Deacons: Servant Leaders, Catholic Heroes

No matter where I travel, the deacons I meet never fail to impress me.  A recent trip to Amarillo, Texas, only added to my already overwhelmingly favorable impression of these dedicated men.  Though they come from all walks of life, they share a common desire to serve the Church, often in very radical ways.  In the 86 “mission dioceses” served by Catholic Extension, deacons are a source of stability and stimulus for the Church.

The 48 deacons spread throughout the geographically vast Diocese of Amarillo help keep Catholic communities strong.

The 48 deacons spread throughout the geographically vast Diocese of Amarillo help keep Catholic communities strong.

One could argue that deacons perhaps play an even more significant role in “mission dioceses,” areas where vast distance, limited financial resources or extreme priest shortages are common challenges.  Luckily, there is no shortage of spirit in these “mission dioceses,” and these deacons, in a very special way, embody that spirited Catholic sensibility that we at Catholic Extension so often encounter.

With 48 deacons, the Diocese of Amarillo has one of the highest deacon-per-capita ratios in the country.  As I traveled across the plains of the Texas panhandle, visiting Catholic Extension-funded ministries, the incredible impact of the deacons was everywhere to be seen.  These deacons are not working in cushy ministries.  Rather, they are in the trenches.

Deacon Jesse, who ministers to prisoners, wears a permanent smile.

Deacon Jesse, who ministers to prisoners, wears a permanent smile.

We accompanied Deacons Mark and Jesse to Clements Unit Prison, where the average inmate’s sentence is 65 years.  They took us inside the prison.  It is a tough place, but the deacons are there to bring hope, dignity, faith and rehabilitation.  They usually spend six days a week in this environment.   I couldn’t help but notice that Deacons Mark and Jesse never shed their smiles during the visit, even when we entered the cell block in the maximum security unit, where the most troubled inmates are housed.  Later, as we passed the “chow hall,” one young man, with a shaved head and tattooed neck, recognized Deacon Jesse.  “Hey man,” the inmate said with delight at the sight of the deacon, “how have you been?”  Deacon Jesse confidently walked over and greeted him with a smile, a warm handshake, and a pat on the back.  “Good to see you,” Deacon Jesse said warmly, “I’ll come around again soon!”

Catholic Extension provides funding to make this ministry possible, and these deacons stretch that support as far as they can, serving thousands of inmates throughout the diocese each year.  They shared many stories of conversion and reconciliation, which are undoubtedly the direct result of their hard work.

Deacon Wayne has been pivotal in helping the Church grow in the northern most region of the Texas Panhandle.

Deacon Wayne has been pivotal in helping the Church grow in the northern most region of the Texas Panhandle.

An hour’s drive north on a tumble weed-strewn road led us to Sunray, Texas, where we met Deacon Wayne at Christ the King Church.  The mission church was built with Catholic Extension’s support years ago, and it currently receives a small operating grant from Catholic Extension of $1,500 per year to help them make ends meet.  Deacon Wayne has lived in Sunray since 1947 and was a member of the first class of deacons for the diocese.  His dedication has enabled the Catholic community to thrive in this humble, working-class town where agriculture and oil are the primary industries.  Deacon Wayne has witnessed the parish grow from about 13 families to 75 families.  Today, it is a young and still-growing parish, consisting of mostly families, with nearly 100 children in religious education programs.  Deacon Wayne is happy to see that he is one of the few parishioners with gray hair.  He helped keep the parish afloat some years ago when it only had $35 in the bank and was struggling to keep the lights on.  He was a stable presence during the years when there was no regular priest assigned to the parish.  He helped the minority Catholic population gain unprecedented acceptance in Sunray by developing strong relationships with the seven other Christian churches in the town.  Thanks to his steady and friendly presence, the Catholic faith is growing here.  In fact, the faith in Sunray is so strong and the bonds among Catholics so deep that “it goes beyond family,” says Deacon Wayne.

Throughout the years Catholic Extension has helped fund the education and training of hundreds of deacons like Wayne, Jesse and Mark in dioceses across the country.  When I think of all the deacons Catholic Extension has financially supported throughout the country, and consider their many achievements as they strive to anchor the faith community as well as extend it, I realize how fantastically lucrative Catholic Extension’s return on investment has been for the Church.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension