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

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

“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.

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

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