“Driving” Improved Access to Catholic Schools

We arrived at All Saints Catholic School in Richmond, Virginia before 7 a.m..  The parking lot was empty and the sun was just rising.  The principal, Ken Soistman, came out to greet us.  He pointed at a cute little white bus that could hold about twenty kids and said, “That’s the bus.”  He was referring to the transportation that Catholic Extension funded for this semester, so that the Hispanic children whose parents could not drive them to school could start attending All Saints this year.  This is a part of Catholic Extension’s pilot program to better understand how transportation impacts Hispanic participation in schools.  Like many of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Richmond, All Saints had tried to encourage more Hispanic children in the area to come to the Catholic school by offering tuition assistance.  But even financial help could not bring families into the school community.

The Catholic Extension funded school bus ensures Catholic school access for Hispanic children in the Diocese of Richmond..

The Catholic Extension funded school bus ensures Catholic school access for Hispanic children in the Diocese of Richmond.

The fact is that many families simply can’t get their children to school; they only have one car, and parents have to leave for work before school opens.  So now, thanks to this bus, more children are able to come.  The hope is that more Hispanic children will enroll in All Saints Catholic School, as well as many of the other Catholic schools across the Diocese of Richmond.  That is why this bus is on Catholic Extension’s Christmas Wish List; hopefully the bus will be funded by donors for the second half of the year, too.

Dioceses across the country are trying to attract more Hispanic children to Catholic schools.  While over 40% of our country’s Catholics are Hispanic, less than 4% of the children who are in Catholic schools are Hispanic.  Since 2000, more than 1,400 Catholic schools have closed.  If recruitment efforts are successful, more Catholic schools can remain open, and more Catholic Hispanic children will have a chance at an education that will help them build a solid Catholic foundation to guide them through the rest of their lives.

Students on All Saints Catholic School's new school bus.

Students on All Saints Catholic School's new school bus.

In Richmond, they have created the Segura Initiative to recruit more Hispanic children to the Catholic schools. We met Sister Inma Cuest-Ventura, one of the people working on this initiative; she has already had some great success.  In order for this project to be successful, there needs to be people within the school who speak Spanish.  They have also learned how to engage the help of the madrinas, which is Spanish for “godmothers.”  These are the trusted women of the neighborhood, whom others listen to.  One of the madrinas at All Saints, Paulita, not only works at the local parish and has her child in the school, she has offered to translate into Spanish the letters the teachers send home. Paulita’s own son had been unhappy at the local public school; he was ashamed to say that he spoke Spanish because he didn’t want to be different from the other kids.  Now at All Saints, he is not only proud to answer questions in Spanish, but also says that he loves the school because all the other kids are Catholic like him.  This is a big deal in Richmond, where only 3% of the population is Catholic.

Nitzia and her daughter.

Nitzia and her daughter.

Nitzia, another madrina, has two daughters at All Saints in Pre-K and second grade.  Nitzia said that her daughter now insists that they say grace before dinner because “That’s what we do at school.”  Her other daughter doesn’t call it All Saints, she calls it “God’s School.”  In August, as Nitzia was eight months pregnant and getting ready to go into the hospital to deliver her baby, she was running around trying to get her daughters’ uniforms so they could go to All Saints.  Her friends and family told her not to go through all the difficulty of getting her girls to the Catholic school.  She responded, “No, I was doing it for my daughters.  It would be better for them.”

Ken Soitsman, Principal, with some of his students at All Saints Catholic School.

Ken Soistman, Principal, with some of his students at All Saints Catholic School.

Principal Ken explained that it is painful to see some families have to leave All Saints because they can’t afford it.  He said: “For some of the parents and grandparents, I can’t say no. I have a grandparent who comes in and says, ‘Where I live, if I can’t get an option, it’s not a question of the education, it’s a question of whether my child will be alive when they’re sixteen.’  You can’t say no to that.”

We hope that Richmond’s success, due to people like Ken and Sister Inma and the madrinas, can serve as a model for other dioceses.  Our visit to All Saints will help to inform Catholic Extension’s future strategy to build capacity in Catholic schools by helping them fill seats, so that more principals like Ken can say “yes” to those who want to attend Catholic school.

— Terry Witherell, National Representative for Strategic Initiatives, Catholic Extension

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Surging Church

When I look at the future of the Catholic Church in the United States, I see a Church that is thriving, relevant, unifying, vibrant and youthful.  I know that this statement comes across as slightly controversial, given the narratives that we are accustomed to being fed about the state of Catholicism today.

However, I believe that on a recent trip to Virginia I gathered enough evidence to back up my assertion. You see, that thriving, relevant, unifying, vibrant and youthful Church already exists today.   You just need to know where to find it.  I witness this vibrant Church in the Hispanic community throughout the U.S., and in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, which is home to a quarter-million Hispanic Catholics.  In fact, what’s happening in Richmond is a microcosm of that larger story.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is currently experiencing one of the greatest opportunities of its entire history with the rapid growth of the Hispanic Catholic population everywhere.   Hispanics now account for 35-40 percent of the Catholic population in this country, but among U.S. Catholics under age 25, Hispanics are now the majority.   Hispanic Catholics are a community on the rise, not just in numbers, but in leadership.

Volunteers from Sacred Heart in Richmond, one of the first communities in the U.S. to participate in Catholic Extension’s “Hispanic Lay leadership initiative.”

Volunteers from Sacred Heart in Richmond, one of the first communities in the U.S. to participate in Catholic Extension’s “Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative.”

To help capitalize on what is truly a gift-wrapped opportunity for U.S. Catholicism to resurge in this country, Catholic Extension has announced a new Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative, which will establish 100 paid lay leaders in the Church throughout the U.S. to help accelerate this resurgence.  The Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative is a matching challenge that will establish new lay leadership positions by providing 50 percent of the salary cost to the participating dioceses for three years to assist in the creation of these full-time positions.

While Hispanics are as much as 40 percent of the U.S. Catholic population, they currently represent only three percent of paid professional leaders in the Church, signifying that there is work to be done in helping the Church develop and incorporate all the gifts and talents that the Hispanic community has to offer.   It is for this reason that Catholic Extension has launched this special leadership initiative and is working with dioceses across the country.  The goal is to place new professional Hispanic leaders in areas where the need for human resources is significant and where the opportunity for making an impact is great.  To date, 49 dioceses have expressed desire to participate in the Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative.  Among the first to express interest was the Diocese of Richmond.

Dr. Arturo Chavez, president and CEO of the Mexican-American Catholic College in San Antonio, told me back in June of this year that “this initiative has the potential to change Hispanic Ministry as we know it.  It is desperately needed.”   So, you can imagine the excitement at Catholic Extension as we begin to see this initiative become a reality in places like Sacred Heart Parish in the city of Richmond, which the local diocese identified as a site for a new regional Hispanic leader.

This particular parish has about 4,500 active parishioners, and serves very under-resourced communities.  In spite of its limited financial capacity, this parish made tremendous gains in recent years to make its presence known in the community and cultivate new leaders. The parish, which reaches Hispanic Catholics living 45 minutes in all directions, has great potential to do much more.

Maria, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, serves her community with great joy and dedication.

Maria, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, serves her community with great joy and dedication.

I met with a room full of parishioners, whose sense of mission and commitment to the faith was as profound and authentic as I’ve ever seen:

“There is no other place that I want to be other than here in the Church.  This place is marvelous,” said Francisco, a parishioner who skips meals so that he can go directly from his job to serve in the Church nightly as a volunteer for many ministries.

“I used to be very depressed…but now that I volunteer for the Church I don’t have time to be depressed anymore,” said one parishioner, who began helping one year ago to educate adults completing their elementary education.

Maria, who works tirelessly for the parish, said it best, “We see how much we’ve done and those results motivate us.  Your help to [to support a new leader] will enable us to do so much more.”

As Catholics, we are indeed living in exciting times, and Catholic Extension is working to maximize the opportunities that are before us.  Catholic Extension is dedicated to its mission – started more than 100 years ago – to continue to listen to the needs and opportunities of the Church and respond with great energy.

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

Never Give Up

Never give up.  That is the attitude of Catholics in rural Virginia.  Last week, I met with communities where Catholic Extension has provided support and others in which we are exploring ways to provide new support.  These people are worth getting to know.

Dillanie is a Catholic student committed to her faith in spite of the many obstacles.

I met Dillanie, a 19-year old college student, who converted to Catholicism last year.  She jokes that she hit a “Catholic Grand Slam” when she entered the church by making a profession of faith, baptism, first Eucharist and Confirmation several months before starting college.  That was arguably her Catholic honeymoon.  Now she attends University of Virginia at Wise, where there is no Catholic campus ministry and no parish.  She does not have a car to drive to the nearest parish 15 miles away.  Dillanie admits that she gets heavy flak for being Catholic from her fellow students.  This, however, does not stop her from practicing her faith.  Every Sunday, she asks one of her Protestant classmates to drive her to church, where she attends Sunday Mass by herself. “It’s very difficult when there’s no support system,” she said

Because she has been so unapologetic about her commitment to her faith, other Catholic students are now beginning to surface on campus.  But, without coordination or leadership, Catholic students find it hard to get a community going.  Catholic Extension is in discussion with the Diocese of Richmond about how we can support the college students of this southwestern Appalachia region of Virginia.

Tazwelle, VA nestled in the Appalachian hills, is in danger of losing its soul and its future to rampant drug use among the youth.

The young people of this area are fighting for more than just their spiritual lives, as I learned from the parishioners of St. Theresa in Tazewell, Virginia, a parish of about 100 families that covers several counties of southwestern Virginia.  Since the mid-‘80s they have watched the addictive Oxycontin drug decimate their youth.  “We have a major drug problem here.  Everyone has been touched by it one way or another,” said Pat.  Last year the parish buried a 23 year-old woman who overdosed on the drug.  In spite of this, the parishioners have not lost hope. “We are few in number and big in faith,” said Kathy.  “All of us have had struggles in these small parishes, but ‘the Church’ is us, and we’re not going to give up. We are Catholic to the bone.”  These are powerful words for a community facing such an uphill battle.

In partnership with the diocese, Catholic Extension would like to develop Catholic young adult leaders who can provide companionship, purpose and the gift of faith to the youth in this area.

Fr. Dan Kelly wears a constant smile as he visits the orchard camps.

I met Fr. Dan Kelly, pastor of St. Mary in Lovingston, Virginia, and St. Francis of Assisi in Amherst, Virginia.  Both churches have been supported by Catholic Extension in the past six years to help build new facilities for these growing communities.  I quickly realized the cause of this growth:  Fr. Dan is perhaps the most energetic and outgoing 73-year old I’ve ever encountered.  Having absolutely no intentions of retiring or slowing down, Fr. Dan faithfully pastors his two churches and somehow finds the time to minister to nine different field worker camps in the area.  In spite of his age and his work load, he will not stop.

Beto, an orchard worker and proud Catholic, shows the image sown into his scapular of St. Toribio Romo, a 20th century Martyr.

He took us to one of these camps to introduce us to the men who work the orchards.  Away from their wives and children, and their faith community, they labor six days a week for nine straight months in the peach and apple industries.  The men are delighted to see Fr. Dan, who shows up with a full kettle of spaghetti that he prepared himself.  With the Irish twinkle in his eyes, Fr. Dan tells jokes to the workers over dinner, speaking Spanish with his endearing Gringo accent.  Beto, one of the workers, said that all the men are very Catholic, and they feel privileged to practice their faith with the help of Fr. Dan.

Out of their struggles, Catholics of Virginia have been conditioned to walk by faith.  They are building a foundation upon which Catholic Extension, in partnership with these refreshingly determined communities, can help create a foundation for a stronger Catholic Church that can serve as the compassionate hands of Christ for an area in need.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management