A Church with Nothing, Has it All.

“This is what Church is really about,” Father Jack Wall commented to me, as a team from Catholic Extension experienced eastern Oklahoma, where the Catholic Church is growing exponentially.

We met with the spirited parishioners of San Juan Diego Mission in Stilwell, Oklahoma, a community that gathers in a simple storage unit, but whose visible desire to live their faith and build a bright future for their children is their most distinguishing characteristic.

Parishioners show their spirit with a song.

The front portion of their rented storage unit serves as their “church,” a place they’ve called home for all nine years of the community’s existence.  The cloth on their donated pews is a retina-burning, bright yellow—worn out hand-me-downs dating back to at least the mid-1970s.   The church retains a musty odor, because when it rains the roof serves as nothing more than a sieve.  Parishioners must celebrate Mass amid buckets to collect the rain water.  In the back of the storage unit—an area that looks akin to my garage—is the parish’s “community and religious education center.”  There is no air conditioning, so parishioners endure the blistering, 100-plus degree Oklahoma summers, as well as the cold winters.

But, cosmetics aside, this church has all the elements needed to be successful: the people have vision, faith, passion, a sense of community, a strong worth ethic and youthfulness.

When the church opened its doors in April 2002, there were only about 23 families gathering for Mass.  Now, not even a decade later, and still without the benefit of a resident priest or adequate physical space, their community has grown to 300 families strong, or about 1,000 people.

Fr. Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, shares pozole with parishioners in their garage-like community center.

On the evening that we visited, parishioners packed into every nook of their humble space, sharing with us a bowl of pozole and some words of welcome.

I noticed the innumerable babies and toddlers, and the throngs of teenagers seated in the church. Antonio Garcia, CCD Coordinator for the parish, stood up and conveyed the ultimate vision they all share for the parish: “Here, our youth and our children are our priority.” 

Parishioners informed us that they are seeking Catholic Extension’s help to develop a peer ministry and faith formation program that will help keep teens close to the Church.  The lure of drugs and a life on the streets are constant dangers that youth and parents often alluded to during our conversation.

Several parishioners shared with us how important their faith was to them, as well as their faith community.  “When one of us suffers, we all suffer,” added one person.

In the future, they also hope to build a church with Catholic Extension’s support, so that they can be a more visible presence in their community.  They’ve been selling tamales and raising money to support their dream of one day having a more dignified place to call home, and have collected about $40,000 to date, a significant accomplishment for this under-resourced community.  Both in the near- and long-terms, Catholic Extension will continue to work through the Diocese of Tulsa to support the youth of this area, and continue the dialogue about their need for physical space.

Parish teens show their pride with their uniformed look. They express desire to stay close to the Church.

After we left Stilwell, I made this realization: no matter how many communities I visit, I never cease to be amazed by the deep faith and level of commitment of the Catholics that I encounter.  I marvel at how those with so little on the surface are really so incredibly rich.

The courageous people of Stilwell can teach something to the rest of the Church about what it means to be a Catholic.  They teach that the gift of faith is truly the only gift that we actually need.  That faith enables us to do all things passionately, practically, and with great perseverance.  The Catholic community of Stillwell should give us all hope for the future, because they teach that no obstacle is too great for people who stand ready to live their faith and answer the call to serve.

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

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Needs, Solutions and Impact

Identifying the needs of Catholic communities, developing solutions that address those needs and measuring the impact of our work and our donors’ gifts – these are among the many services Catholic Extension provides to the Church in the U.S.   On a recent trip to Little Rock, I met leaders from 23 of the 86 “mission dioceses” supported by Catholic Extension to learn about their emerging needs, understand how we can help and evaluate the strategies that have been successful.

Needs:

I met Fr. Leonardo, director of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Tulsa, OK.  He is solely in charge of the pastoral care of as many as 25,000 Catholics.  He drives 600 miles every weekend to visit the communities he supports.  From now on, I’ll just think of him the next time I’m tempted to complain that my life is hard.  Without a great deal of funding or any support staff, Fr. Leonardo’s efforts are severely limited, especially his efforts to reach out to poor and at-risk youth.  Last December, 400 impoverished young people from his diocese signed up for a potentially life-changing retreat, but because he couldn’t pay for the buses to transport these young people and had no staff to coordinate alternative transportation, he had to cancel.  “I just need someone who can focus all of their attention on these young people who have nothing,” Fr. Leonardo lamented.

I met the dynamic and successful Jesus Abrego, who works with youth in the Diocese of Beaumont, TX.  Just last week, he organized an event which drew thousands of spiritually hungry youth.  However, Abrego fears his efforts are not enough. “We have a rich past that we should celebrate,” he said.  “But, I am concerned about the future. How many of our young people are in jail, pregnant at 16 or addicted to drugs?”  It is his priority to find new and better ways to reach out to those youths.

The experiences of Fr. Leonardo and Jesus Abrego — those of having too big of a task with too little staff and funding — are unfortunately not uncommon experiences in our Church today.

Jesus Abrego, Director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry, Diocese of Beaumont, Texas

Solutions:

Investing in pastoral leaders is a simple and practical solution for our Church.  For more than 100 years, Catholic Extension has been providing salary support for pastoral leaders, and the need for this type of support is greater now more than ever.

Currently, Catholic Extension is proposing a $15 million partnership initiative with other funding organizations and Catholic dioceses, which would provide seed money to help establish 100 new positions for pastoral leaders across the country over the next three years.  These positions would help dynamic leaders like Fr. Leonardo and Jesus Abrego expand the outreach of the Church to the most vulnerable populations.

This initiative was enthusiastically embraced by the 23 diocesan representatives that gathered with me in Little Rock.  The additional leaders will help them engage Catholics on the margins, especially young Catholics.

Impact:

This solution of providing salary support has proven to be effective.  Take, for example, the Diocese of Little Rock, which experienced double-digit growth in its Catholic population over the last 20 years.  Catholic Extension invested heavily in the salaries of pastoral leaders in this diocese.

In the town of DeQueen, in the far southwest corner of Arkansas, Catholic Extension provided salary support to St. Barbara.  When that effort began, there were about 70 Catholics who belonged to the rural parish.  The new pastoral leaders, however, worked hard at building a vibrant faith community, and today the parish has more than 1,500 active Catholics.

Starting this week, Catholic Extension is funding the salaries of pastoral leaders who are moving their ministry across the state from DeQueen to Hamburg, Arkansas.  Currently, Holy Spirit Parish in Hamburg is a small community.  But Msgr. Scott Friend, the Vicar General of the diocese, knows that the area has great potential to grow, and in two to three years time they expect to have a community that rivals the size of the one in DeQueen.

The future is within reach, but we as Catholics are going to have to stretch ourselves to make it there.   What I learned on this trip to Little Rock is that while the needs are profound, there are steps we can take right now to address them and make a lasting difference for so many dedicated Catholics right here in our own country.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management