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

Light Shines Brightly Through the Darkness

Last week, Catholic Extension offered its annual Lumen Christi Award to Sr. Gabriella Williams, O.P., in the Lower Desert of southern California.  In Latin, the award’s name means, “Light of Christ,” and it is given to a person in the U.S. whose ministry brings light and hope to both the Church and society.

I had the privilege of attending the Lumen Christi event, where we witnessed first-hand how Sr. Gabi’s brilliant “light” has counteracted a great deal of darkness, and ignited change throughout the community.

Sr. Gabi serves people living in the trailer parks across the Coachella Valley.  They are the working poor; the people who tirelessly labor in the fields and orchards of this region.  Their average household income rarely exceeds $10,000.  During our visit to these communities, I couldn’t help but recall the Steinbeck novels that I had read in school.During her eight years in this ministry, Sr. Gabi has provided pastoral care for about 150,000 people spread out among various trailer parks.  Ninety-eight percent of them are Roman Catholic.  As the Church’s representative for so many people, she serves as a faith-builder, educator and social activist. Sr. Gabi has stood in the face of so much darkness, yet she has always believed that the light of Christ is stronger and more powerful.  In doing so she has inspired other local community members to see the potential that she sees.

Sr. Gabi is the face of the Church for hundreds of families living in the Coachella Valley trailer parks.

As we walked through the trailer park, one of Sister’s fellow community organizers acknowledged, “What brings values and quality of life for these people?  Their faith.  Sister helps them believe.”   The Catholic faith gives these people both the reason and the tools needed to fight another day.

Sr. Gabi and the community are starting to see some changes.In the early days of her ministry, drugs and crime were rampant in the trailer parks.  Living conditions were deplorable with as many as 25 people living in one run-down trailer.  One slum lord would even barricade the entrance of the community with armed guards.  Sr. Gabi was not welcome there, but she never let that stand in her way.  To gain access to the people, she would simply get a running start in her red pick-up truck and race through the guarded entrance at a high speed.  Today, with her help and advocacy, that slumlord is gone, as are much of the crime and drugs, and the unsafe trailers.

Many of the trailer parks had been condemned 40-60 years ago. "They are painted garbage cans, but the people are beautiful," explained Sr. Gabi.

In the early days of her ministry, Sr. Gabi witnessed many young people drop out of school.  Today, with support from Catholic Extension, she is completing a new learning center so that she can help educate young people out of poverty.

In the early days of her ministry, the people in the trailer parks were being poisoned by the water that they drank.   A toxic dump sits next to one park, and burns waste that ultimately enters into the water supply.  In many places, dangerous levels of arsenic are present in the water.  Today, Sr. Gabi is working with a newly founded non-profit, Pueblo Unido, to create state-of-the-art, clean water stations, which will help thousands of people gain access to quality drinking water.

In the early days of her ministry, when the people were lost without the presence of the Church, Sister Gabi brought Bishop Barnes to celebrate Mass in the trailer parks to show the people that the larger Church does care about them.  Today, she’s recruited many Catholic retirees of the Palm Springs/Palm Desert parishes to serve as volunteers and fundraisers in her work.  She has provided religious education classes, and has arranged other Catholic celebrations in the parks to help people experience the fullness of the faith.

In the early days of her ministry, people were paralyzed with fear and unable to band together.  Today they have a sense of community, a sense of purpose, and a sense of their collective potential.

With the help of loyal volunteers, Sr. Gabi plans to use the $25,000 grant to complete the creation a youth education center.

When you hear Catholic Extension reference the “transformative power of faith,” Sr. Gabi’s ministry is exactly what we are talking about—a textbook example of what a faith community can do when it believes that the light of Christ shines brighter than the darkness.

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