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

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

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

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

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

Surging Church

When I look at the future of the Catholic Church in the United States, I see a Church that is thriving, relevant, unifying, vibrant and youthful.  I know that this statement comes across as slightly controversial, given the narratives that we are accustomed to being fed about the state of Catholicism today.

However, I believe that on a recent trip to Virginia I gathered enough evidence to back up my assertion. You see, that thriving, relevant, unifying, vibrant and youthful Church already exists today.   You just need to know where to find it.  I witness this vibrant Church in the Hispanic community throughout the U.S., and in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, which is home to a quarter-million Hispanic Catholics.  In fact, what’s happening in Richmond is a microcosm of that larger story.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is currently experiencing one of the greatest opportunities of its entire history with the rapid growth of the Hispanic Catholic population everywhere.   Hispanics now account for 35-40 percent of the Catholic population in this country, but among U.S. Catholics under age 25, Hispanics are now the majority.   Hispanic Catholics are a community on the rise, not just in numbers, but in leadership.

Volunteers from Sacred Heart in Richmond, one of the first communities in the U.S. to participate in Catholic Extension’s “Hispanic Lay leadership initiative.”

Volunteers from Sacred Heart in Richmond, one of the first communities in the U.S. to participate in Catholic Extension’s “Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative.”

To help capitalize on what is truly a gift-wrapped opportunity for U.S. Catholicism to resurge in this country, Catholic Extension has announced a new Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative, which will establish 100 paid lay leaders in the Church throughout the U.S. to help accelerate this resurgence.  The Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative is a matching challenge that will establish new lay leadership positions by providing 50 percent of the salary cost to the participating dioceses for three years to assist in the creation of these full-time positions.

While Hispanics are as much as 40 percent of the U.S. Catholic population, they currently represent only three percent of paid professional leaders in the Church, signifying that there is work to be done in helping the Church develop and incorporate all the gifts and talents that the Hispanic community has to offer.   It is for this reason that Catholic Extension has launched this special leadership initiative and is working with dioceses across the country.  The goal is to place new professional Hispanic leaders in areas where the need for human resources is significant and where the opportunity for making an impact is great.  To date, 49 dioceses have expressed desire to participate in the Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative.  Among the first to express interest was the Diocese of Richmond.

Dr. Arturo Chavez, president and CEO of the Mexican-American Catholic College in San Antonio, told me back in June of this year that “this initiative has the potential to change Hispanic Ministry as we know it.  It is desperately needed.”   So, you can imagine the excitement at Catholic Extension as we begin to see this initiative become a reality in places like Sacred Heart Parish in the city of Richmond, which the local diocese identified as a site for a new regional Hispanic leader.

This particular parish has about 4,500 active parishioners, and serves very under-resourced communities.  In spite of its limited financial capacity, this parish made tremendous gains in recent years to make its presence known in the community and cultivate new leaders. The parish, which reaches Hispanic Catholics living 45 minutes in all directions, has great potential to do much more.

Maria, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, serves her community with great joy and dedication.

Maria, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, serves her community with great joy and dedication.

I met with a room full of parishioners, whose sense of mission and commitment to the faith was as profound and authentic as I’ve ever seen:

“There is no other place that I want to be other than here in the Church.  This place is marvelous,” said Francisco, a parishioner who skips meals so that he can go directly from his job to serve in the Church nightly as a volunteer for many ministries.

“I used to be very depressed…but now that I volunteer for the Church I don’t have time to be depressed anymore,” said one parishioner, who began helping one year ago to educate adults completing their elementary education.

Maria, who works tirelessly for the parish, said it best, “We see how much we’ve done and those results motivate us.  Your help to [to support a new leader] will enable us to do so much more.”

As Catholics, we are indeed living in exciting times, and Catholic Extension is working to maximize the opportunities that are before us.  Catholic Extension is dedicated to its mission – started more than 100 years ago – to continue to listen to the needs and opportunities of the Church and respond with great energy.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, 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

History, Progress, and the Future

I just spent a couple of days in southern Texas in the Diocese of Brownsvillethe most densely Catholic diocese in the nation.  As much as 85% of the population belongs to the Catholic Church, and some estimate that the diocese has tripled in population since 1980. As our group made our way to various parishes along the Rio Grande on the U.S.-Mexico border, I was struck not only by the great legacy that Catholic Extension has in this area, but also the great opportunity we have to do so much more.

We visited St. Eugene, a mission parish located in a residential neighborhood in the city of Brownsville.  In an unexpected presentation from Rev. Timothy W. Paulsen, OMI, he showed us a picture from 1911, of Catholic Extension’s founders standing with a group of Texas missionaries on horseback.  Together, they were celebrating the groundbreaking of the first church in the diocese.  Over the years, with the help of Catholic Extension, the Catholic Church has continued to grow throughout the Valley.

This unassuming mission Church is a force of change in Lopezville.

This unassuming mission church is a force of change in Lopezville.

St. Eugene’s parish, which currently receives small salary subsidies from Catholic Extension, is a microcosm of that larger story of growth.   In the early 1970s, the parish began in a small trailer, where they celebrated Mass and held religious education classes.   The community outgrew the trailer, and in 1990 it built a larger facility with Catholic Extension’s support.  Twenty-one years later, the parish has grown even more, along with its various social outreaches to the neighborhood.  With this continued growth comes the need for a larger church.  Over 1,000 people attend their standing-room-only Masses on Sundays, and more than 400 kids are enrolled in their religious education program.  Though these numbers are great, the parishioners believe they can still reach so many more people.   The purpose of our visit was to learn more about how Catholic Extension can partner with this parish to make the dream for more space and more outreach a reality.

Up the river, we visited parishioners from Immaculate Conception in Lopezville, Texas, a mission where Catholic Extension provides support for ministries to youth and families.  Lopezville is an unincorporated residential area outside of McAllen, Texas.  The church is a small wooden chapel with a charming steeple.  Based on its size, it would be hard to guess that hundreds of people attend Sunday Masses there, and somewhere between 100 and 200 kids receive religious education.

Josefa, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception since 1958, is committed to her church and neighborhood.

Josefa, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception since 1958, is committed to her church and neighborhood.

Father Jerry, the pastor of Immaculate Conception, took us for a tour through the neighborhood.  One couldn’t help but notice the blight: the graffiti; the flimsy trailers precariously stilted atop cinder blocks; the houses falling apart; the crudely erected chain-link fences surrounding each house; the junk strewn about the yards; and the howling dogs on guard duty at each property, suspicious of anyone walking the streets..

Father Jerry worries about the young people in this neighborhood because of the presence of local gangs.  One parishioner, Josefa, who has lived in the area since 1958, worries about the lack of lighting in the neighborhood.  Another parishioner, Elisa, worries about the people around her living in abject poverty—her neighbor, who cares for two bedridden children, is confined to a 10 x 10 room.

A loose dog, prowls the streets of Lopezville.

A loose dog, prowls the streets of Lopezville.

While the problems run deep in Lopezville, so does the Catholic faith and the conviction that something can be done.  Parishioners individually told us about their decades-long commitment to their community.  They continue to have bold visions about how the Church can leverage itself to inspire hope and ignite change in their neighborhood.   While they still have much to accomplish, they have all been encouraged by the progress that they’ve already achieved.  They advocated for a sewage system in the neighborhood and achieved it.  They asked for a greater police presence and achieved it.  They helped many young people go on to live successful lives because the Church gave them purpose, values and community.

Juan, a native of Lopezville, and parishioner of Immaculate Conception Mission.

Juan, a native of Lopezville, and parishioner of Immaculate Conception Mission.

One parishioner, Juan José, who now works for the Hidalgo county sheriff, said that he and his peers are the tangible results that have come from Immaculate Conception.  As a young person, the realities of his neighborhood were inescapable.  He recalled witnessing a shooting.  Yet he says that he and his peers, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended the parish felt the goodness of this Church, and it stayed inside them.

The people of the Diocese of Brownsville see firsthand what the transformative power of faith in the community can do in people’s lives, and they continue to be emboldened to ignite change and do great things.

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

Into the Bush Country (Alaska part 3)

Bethel, Alaska, in the Diocese of Fairbanks, is the largest of all 600 Bush villages.  Bethel is a “hub” for planes in and out of the region, serving 56 villages.  It’s a hub because the only way to get in and out of Bethel and the rest of the Bush country is by boat or plane.  Half of the village of Bethel just got indoor plumbing; no cell phone service is available in the entire area.  As opposed to the gorgeous mountains, cascading waterfalls and pristine coast of Valdez, the Bush country is tundra – flat and treeless, with millions of lakes, marshes and mosquitoes- what they call the State Bird of Alaska.

The expansive Bush country in Alaska.

Everyday life is tough and challenging in the Bush country, but these Native Alaskans are a happy and faith-filled people.  They are Yu-pic Americans; Yu-pic meaning “the real people.”  We grew up calling them “Eskimos.”

Many of the people revel in the challenges and take joy and pride in their way of life.  Justin, who is finishing up two years with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp., said he “wanted to come to the Bush Country of Alaska ever since he was a little kid.”  He is discerning the priesthood, and has been leading the youth group for 8th-12th graders.

“Bethel comes alive in the winter,” Justin explained, noting that “snow machining,” ice fishing, dog mushing, cross country skiing, para-skiing and other outdoor activities keep the village going, even in days that reach negative 70 degrees.  “Negative 25 (-25 degrees Fahrenheit) is like summer,” he laughed.  The first snow hit last year on September 29.  It’s so cold in Bethel in winter that pipes are raised above ground – those placed in the ground freeze and crack.

Justin leads a youth group for 8th-12th graders.

Justin is even optimistic when discussing living in the freezing cold in four hours of sunlight, on average each day, in winter.  “I get to see the sunrise and sunset every day,” he noted.  “And the stars, they are ‘planetarium’ clear.  In the summer, it’s so light until so late that you don’t get to see the stars.”

Bethel, like other communities in Alaska, is dealing with serious social issues – high rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, Justin explained.  “We do a lot of counseling,” he said, noting it took six months for the kids to open up to him.  Fr. Chuck Peterson and Susan Murphy, parish administrator of Immaculate Conception Parish, here, are so well-known and respected in the community that much of their time is spent providing counseling.

Immaculate Conception, which was built by Catholic Extension donors, is a hub of activity in the area and it does everything it possibly can to sustain itself.  As we arrive, we view an entire building – one of its former church buildings – filled with tables of paperback and hardcover books, meticulously sorted by type and in alphabetical order.  The book sale took days of sorting to set up, Susan explained.  It looks to me that it would have taken months.  In the next building an entire “rummage” sale is set up, providing more income for the church and clothing and supplies needed by the people.

Fr. Chuck Peterson in Immaculate Conception, a church built by Catholic Extension donors.

Under Fr. Chuck’s direction, Immaculate Conception is a very inclusive parish community, celebrating the cultural heritage of the people with the richness of the faith.  Ten languages are spoken in the parish and for Pentecost Fr. Chuck had parishioners create banners with the “Our Father” in their native tongue.  Thirty line the walls.

Fr. Chuck and the diocese are intent on training the Yu-pic people to take leadership positions in the church and they have successfully embraced a diaconate training program that “blends Roman Catholicism with the gifts of the Native culture.”

Catholicism is strong and vibrant in Bethel, nurtured by caring people who have a great respect for the people they serve.  It is a privilege to witness the church in its many forms, but true to its adoration of the Word and the Eucharist.

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications

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

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

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