Deacons: Servant Leaders, Catholic Heroes

No matter where I travel, the deacons I meet never fail to impress me.  A recent trip to Amarillo, Texas, only added to my already overwhelmingly favorable impression of these dedicated men.  Though they come from all walks of life, they share a common desire to serve the Church, often in very radical ways.  In the 86 “mission dioceses” served by Catholic Extension, deacons are a source of stability and stimulus for the Church.

The 48 deacons spread throughout the geographically vast Diocese of Amarillo help keep Catholic communities strong.

The 48 deacons spread throughout the geographically vast Diocese of Amarillo help keep Catholic communities strong.

One could argue that deacons perhaps play an even more significant role in “mission dioceses,” areas where vast distance, limited financial resources or extreme priest shortages are common challenges.  Luckily, there is no shortage of spirit in these “mission dioceses,” and these deacons, in a very special way, embody that spirited Catholic sensibility that we at Catholic Extension so often encounter.

With 48 deacons, the Diocese of Amarillo has one of the highest deacon-per-capita ratios in the country.  As I traveled across the plains of the Texas panhandle, visiting Catholic Extension-funded ministries, the incredible impact of the deacons was everywhere to be seen.  These deacons are not working in cushy ministries.  Rather, they are in the trenches.

Deacon Jesse, who ministers to prisoners, wears a permanent smile.

Deacon Jesse, who ministers to prisoners, wears a permanent smile.

We accompanied Deacons Mark and Jesse to Clements Unit Prison, where the average inmate’s sentence is 65 years.  They took us inside the prison.  It is a tough place, but the deacons are there to bring hope, dignity, faith and rehabilitation.  They usually spend six days a week in this environment.   I couldn’t help but notice that Deacons Mark and Jesse never shed their smiles during the visit, even when we entered the cell block in the maximum security unit, where the most troubled inmates are housed.  Later, as we passed the “chow hall,” one young man, with a shaved head and tattooed neck, recognized Deacon Jesse.  “Hey man,” the inmate said with delight at the sight of the deacon, “how have you been?”  Deacon Jesse confidently walked over and greeted him with a smile, a warm handshake, and a pat on the back.  “Good to see you,” Deacon Jesse said warmly, “I’ll come around again soon!”

Catholic Extension provides funding to make this ministry possible, and these deacons stretch that support as far as they can, serving thousands of inmates throughout the diocese each year.  They shared many stories of conversion and reconciliation, which are undoubtedly the direct result of their hard work.

Deacon Wayne has been pivotal in helping the Church grow in the northern most region of the Texas Panhandle.

Deacon Wayne has been pivotal in helping the Church grow in the northern most region of the Texas Panhandle.

An hour’s drive north on a tumble weed-strewn road led us to Sunray, Texas, where we met Deacon Wayne at Christ the King Church.  The mission church was built with Catholic Extension’s support years ago, and it currently receives a small operating grant from Catholic Extension of $1,500 per year to help them make ends meet.  Deacon Wayne has lived in Sunray since 1947 and was a member of the first class of deacons for the diocese.  His dedication has enabled the Catholic community to thrive in this humble, working-class town where agriculture and oil are the primary industries.  Deacon Wayne has witnessed the parish grow from about 13 families to 75 families.  Today, it is a young and still-growing parish, consisting of mostly families, with nearly 100 children in religious education programs.  Deacon Wayne is happy to see that he is one of the few parishioners with gray hair.  He helped keep the parish afloat some years ago when it only had $35 in the bank and was struggling to keep the lights on.  He was a stable presence during the years when there was no regular priest assigned to the parish.  He helped the minority Catholic population gain unprecedented acceptance in Sunray by developing strong relationships with the seven other Christian churches in the town.  Thanks to his steady and friendly presence, the Catholic faith is growing here.  In fact, the faith in Sunray is so strong and the bonds among Catholics so deep that “it goes beyond family,” says Deacon Wayne.

Throughout the years Catholic Extension has helped fund the education and training of hundreds of deacons like Wayne, Jesse and Mark in dioceses across the country.  When I think of all the deacons Catholic Extension has financially supported throughout the country, and consider their many achievements as they strive to anchor the faith community as well as extend it, I realize how fantastically lucrative Catholic Extension’s return on investment has been for the Church.

— 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

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

Small Investments, Big Results

Monsignor Gene Driscoll, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Lubbock, led the effort to establish the parish in 1998.

Fresh off our recent visit to the dioceses of San Angelo and Lubbock in the dry western half of Texas, I am struck by the fact that we witnessed something special: the fruits of investments made years ago.

Thirteen years ago, Catholic Extension made a $20,000 grant to the diocese of Lubbock to begin the process of creating a new parish in the diocese, the first in its 28-year history. “I didn’t even have a chair to sit on,” recalled Monsignor Gene Driscoll during the tour of the parish he helped found. Catholic Extension’s grant supported the establishment of an office for him at the Cathedral of Christ the King from which Monsignor Driscoll could begin his work of forming the new parish. In 1998, he gathered 20 couples and together they knocked on 9,500 doors in the area where the proposed parish would eventually be built. Their community outreach effort seems to have paid off. Thirteen years and two building phases later, Holy Spirit Catholic Church boasts more than 1,200 families and is bursting at the seams with activity. Since the first mass was celebrated in the fall of 1998, 470 people have been baptized. The community shows no sign of slowing down. To meet the demand for religious education, it has plans to build 14 more classrooms to supplement the existing campus which already includes a sanctuary that seats 1,400, a parish hall, a preschool and a baseball field.

The Holy Spirit Catholic community now worships in 1,400 seat sanctuary. The first mass was celebrated in 1998 in a Knights of Columbus hall that stood where the church now stands.

On another stop, south of San Angelo, the small town of Eldorado is home to a population of less than 2,000. We met with five of its teen residents who, thanks to a diocesan program called Make A Difference started with a $40,000 Catholic Extension grant in 2005, are committed to doing just that: make a difference.  Deisy, Audrey, Lauren, Joseph and Michael remarkably recounted how they each begrudgingly, at first, but joyfully, by the end, traded cell phones, junk food and sleeping in for a week helping strangers and growing in their faith.  Make a Difference, created by Franciscan Sister Adelina Garcia, OSF, is a week-long summer experience designed to expose Catholic teens from parishes throughout the diocese to a life of Catholic faith in action. Each day is filled with an experience of hands-on community service followed by an evening of prayer and reflection.  The intended result for participants, said Sister Garcia, is a broader sense of the Church and a deeper commitment to living their Catholic faith. The teens we met were living proof that it has worked.

In the background, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, home to “difference makers” Deisy, Audrey, Lauren, Michael and Joseph.

“It made me want to help people more and do other stuff with the Church,” said Joseph, a tall athletic young man who, alongside his brother, Michael, starts on the varsity basketball team and who, with their sister Lauren, is one of three in a set of triplets. It has given them confidence in their Catholic faith, too. In an area where Catholics are less than 20% of the population, Make A Difference gave the teens the support they needed to learn the faith from peers and leaders during the week and provided them with a network of friends to draw upon once they went home. More proof of the program’s effectiveness? Working with materials developed by Sister Adelina, Deisy is hoping to work with other Make A Difference alumni to mount a local version of the experience for more teens from her parish to experience.

Up until now, when visiting a mission diocese, I often found myself encountering something great, watching the seeds of something new take hold, like a new program or new building.  Instead, on this trip, alongside the new projects and possibilities, we encountered the fully-grown fruits of projects started years ago by Catholic Extension funds that today are flourishing on their own in the able hands of committed volunteers and leaders.  Modest investments made years ago by Catholic Extension donors are today paying dividends in the lives of thousands in San Angelo and Lubbock.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management