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

Living Lessons in Ecumenism

Some people theorize about ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, and other people live it every day.

St. Ann Parish in rural Kingstree, South Carolina.

St. Ann Parish in rural Kingstree, South Carolina.

I had a chance to visit St. Ann Catholic Parish located in a rural Kingstree, South Carolina.  St. Ann is an old Jewish synagogue that the local Catholics purchased and renovated slightly in 2004 with support from Catholic Extension.  The renovations included installing a cross, a statue of Mary, a tabernacle and kneelers. Everything else basically remained intact.  Remnants of the church’s previous “owners” abound with Stars of David, Torah scrolls and Menorahs depicted in the stain glass windows and doors.  This physical environment reminds parishioners every Sunday of their common roots with those of the Jewish tradition.

St. Ann Church was formerly a Jewish Synagogue.

St. Ann Church was formerly a Jewish Synagogue.

This small but active parish has had 13 pastors in the past 20 years.  In the 37,000 square-mile-diocese of Charleston, priests are stretched thin, trying to provide sacraments among distant mission communities.  During this time, a group of Felician sisters has given pastoral stability to St. Ann.  They teach religious education, lead choir and care for the church.  In addition to their parish duties, at what they jokingly refer to as the “syna-church,” these religious sisters run an outreach center “across the tracks,” which feeds, educates and clothes more than 4,000 people every year.  They intentionally situated their ministry in an area of town that is notorious for violence, drugs and alcoholism.

Catholics are less than 5 percent of the population in this area, so to accomplish their ambitious mission of serving the many who are poor and disadvantaged, the sisters partner with various local Protestant churches.  Sixty regular volunteers from different races, faith denominations and walks of life come together to serve through the Felician Center.

The Felician Sisters work with community members and volunteers.

The Felician Sisters work with community members and volunteers.

One volunteer, Jean, who identified herself as Presbyterian, says that the sisters give Christians in the area the opportunity to fulfill what God is calling us all to do by encouraging people to get out of their comfort zones and go to the other side of the tracks to serve those in need.

I met another volunteer, Ed, an energetic 90-year-old Catholic parishioner from St. Ann. He told us that each Sunday he goes to Catholic Mass at 8:30 a.m., while his wife attends service at her Presbyterian church at 11 a.m.  But when it comes time to work with the sisters, Christian unity prevails.  For 20 continuous years, they have been tutoring kids and serving meals at the Felician Center and are amazed and proud to see how the ministry has grown.

It’s no surprise that these Felician sisters are among Catholic Extension’s 12 Lumen Christi Award finalists for 2012.  The nomination, which came to us from the bishop of the Charleston diocese and the people of South Carolina, recognizes that something truly special is happening here.

The Sisters bring joy to a struggling community.

The Sisters bring joy to a struggling community.

Sisters Susanne and Johnna have had a presence in the area for two decades, and together with the broader Christian community, they are helping transform a very poor area.  A quick check of the U.S. Census Bureau statistics sadly confirms that Kingstree is located in one of the poorest counties of South Carolina and in one of the poorest states in the nation. But this is precisely the kind of place where you so often find the Church at its best, where people collectively rise to the challenge.

In Kingstree, people of faith are changing culture, social paradigms, and ultimately, minds and hearts.  To do this, they are focusing on what unites them and not what divides them.

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

Making Things Happen

Last week, a visit to the Diocese of Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, demonstrated so vividly for me that we belong to a Church that can make great things happen… even on a small budget.

I met with Sister Rosaline who operates the Our Lady Help of Christians Center for outreach near Gwinn, Mich.  With $50,000 in support from Catholic Extension’s donors, the center will be able to expand its ministry from a shoestring operation to a more robust presence in a community that desperately needs the steady hand of the Church. Sr. Rosaline can now purchase a phone—a luxury she did without until several months ago when news of Catholic Extension’s support reached her.

Sr. Rosaline reaches out to local families and children through the Our Lady Help of Christians Center.

The Our Lady Help of Christians Center provides meals to the hungry and referral services to an isolated rural community beset by poverty, drugs and violence.  The center serves an area that has been deeply affected by two major industries slowing down or completely leaving the area. Iron ore mining, which was historically a strong source of jobs, is no longer the lifeblood of the region. The K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, which brought tens of thousands of families to this otherwise rural community, closed in 1995.  The center is able to serve thousands of people in need, including children, who were affected by the decline of these industries essential to the region, or who find K.I. Sawyer the only affordable place to live.

As we visited the center, a group of local children approached Sr. Rosaline, some walking barefoot on asphalt, others with the day’s dirt on their hands and faces.  Sr. Rosaline is the face of the Church’s compassion for this abandoned community and the children clearly know her well. “How are you today?” she cheerfully asks one child as she stoops down and cups the girl’s chin in her hand.

Before departing, Sr. Rosaline turned to me and said, “Without Catholic Extension’s support, this ministry would have discontinued.”  Looking back on it now, I wish I could have been quick-witted enough in that moment to answer her by saying, “Sister, without people like you, Catholic Extension would have discontinued long ago.”

Catholic Extension’s mission is to help extend the faith in the U.S., but this can only be accomplished in partnership with dynamic Catholics like Sr. Rosaline who stand ready to do the hard work necessary to “extend” the Church’s presence and mission.

We belong to a Church that gets things done.   It is the Church that works.  It is the Church that continually extends itself beyond its four walls to serve the larger community.  Across the country, anywhere Catholics have a determination to live their faith, Catholic Extension is a ready partner for them in their efforts to mobilize.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

The world moved.

The world moved a little bit this month, and I like the direction it’s going in.

We at Catholic Extension recently were privileged to present at a meeting of FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities) held in Chicago on the work and impact of women religious in America. As part of our presentation, we brought nine brilliant women from across the country to tell their stories to this organization, a vitally important association of funders that provides tens of millions of dollars in financial support each year to Catholic ministries.

Four of our presenters were women religious and five were lay people who have been inspired to carry out the work of women religious. We had met all of them during our travels across the country to the places where our donors provide support – $1.7 million to women religious out of $18 million we will distribute this year.

Two of the women provide social and spiritual outreach to rural African-Americans in Mississippi. Four of them give social and spiritual support to primarily Navajo populations in Arizona, where many people struggle with addiction. One woman educates Apache children in Southern Arizona. And two women provide spiritual and social support to Hispanic populations in eastern Tennessee, where many Catholics work in extremely low-paying jobs in agrarian and manufacturing industries.

Each of our panelists represents the Catholic Church in all its beauty and diversity, and in all of its struggles and opportunities for growth. As they spoke of the lives they lead among the communities they love, the only sound in the room was of people passing around Kleenex boxes.

One of our panelists talked of how she was a teenage immigrant 20 years ago in Eastern Tennessee, struggling through school and working to support her family as a migrant strawberry picker in the region’s agricultural sector. The Church reached out to her and gave her a reason to remain hopeful. Today, she works for the same church that helped her 20 years ago, giving the same hope and outreach to today’s Hispanic immigrants that were once offered to her.

Knowing that she was in a room full of savvy funders who track metrics and outcomes on their financial support, our panelist simply and eloquently said, “I just realized as I was sitting here, that I am your outcome. I am able to be here because of what you do.” In response to this simple observation, the room of funders erupted in applause.

One panelist recounted that she had once struggled with severe alcohol addiction. At a young age she was a single mother of seven, and addiction was destroying her life and her family. Faced with an alcohol-related conviction, she spent several months in prison. The whole time, she said, the sisters were there for her and her family, giving her support, encouragement and license to change her life around. The sisters visited her in prison and watched over her family. Today, she is thankful to be free from the alcohol and has begun to restore her family life. She volunteers regularly with the sisters, understanding how important their work is in her community.

“Never Give up,” said the pint-sized, big-hearted Sr. Bernard, who is working in Arizona. She believes in a God of second chances, and a God for whom nothing is impossible. “I have seen some people with the same problem for 17 years. We need to continue to be there for them and serve them. We always have hope.”

Everyone at that FADICA meeting, myself included, was privileged to see what a powerful leaven faith can be in this world. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but recollect the passage from Matthew’s gospel, “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Later that night I thought about my own life. I am about to become the father of a second daughter. My wife and I agree that in our home we will strive to create an environment where we can raise strong, bright, faith-filled women who are prepared not only to face the world, but to change it. I thought of the women at the FADICA meeting that day, how they are answering the call to take action in tough situations and give their best response to what their life and vocation has dealt them. How I wish for me and my daughters that we could all be as resolute in our effort to shake and move the world.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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

Traveling Exhibit — Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America


Did you know more than 110 US colleges and universities were founded by Catholic sisters?  In the Spring issue of Extension Magazine, we take a closer look at a new traveling exhibit touring museums across the country called Women & Sprit: Catholic Sisters in America that celebrates the invaluable contributions women religious have made to our nation.

Celebrating Women Religious

In the Spring 2010 issue of Extension, Father Wall talks with four sisters about women religious today and the transformative power of faith in communities.  Click here to read the full roundtable discussion, which linked sisters across the nation—from a community center in the plains of Idaho to a mission in the shadow of Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World in Florida.