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

Seeing Great Returns on Our Investments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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