Chicago, IL - - Catholic funders joined together with the Catholic Church Extension Society October 15th for a conference celebrating the ministry of sisters in the 88 home mission dioceses of the United States.
The conference which included forty foundation trustees, Extension personnel, Catholic sisters from rural Mississippi, as well as Navaho and Apache communities in the Southwest, showcased their work running Catholic schools, parishes, and social service programs among the poor.
The conference also included personal testimony from a panel of lay women who were trained and formed by the sisters for service in the home missions or helped in their personal lives.
Sister Donna Gunn CSJ, Director of Advocacy at Sacred Heart Family Center in Camden, Mississippi, spoke movingly about the lay witness and leadership that she has found in her decade of service in a rural, low income, Catholic community.
"As laity move into roles that once were served by religious, I ask them to be attentive to how the Holy Spirit is present and continues to call the laity to be the face of the church," she said.
"I am very proud of what we religious have been able to do," Sr. Donna added, referring to a once burgeoning population of sisters and clergy serving in the missions, "but our church needs new leadership now, not just because the religious are not there, but because the Holy Spirit is pushing us forward," she added.
"There’s a lot of training that has to be done," said Lourdes Garza, a lay panelist, and native of Mexico City. Ms Garza is now Diocesan Director of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Knoxville, TN.
"I am running a Bible Institute, and its amazing when you open your doors and see how many want to learn more about their faith and to be prepared to serve it," said Ms. Garza. She told the audience that while the hunger for learning and faith formation is great, much more has to be done to ready laity to do this work. "I don’t have the teachers that I need," she lamented.
Sr. Mary Bernard Derayunan RSG, another speaker at the Chicago-based meeting, works at the Good Shepherd Center in the Diocese of Gallup. There she helps impoverished women who are ex-offenders find community service opportunities, training and stable employment.
When asked to describe the essence of her work in the home missions, she said: "helping others look for what is truly good in their lives and to be a witness to God's mercy and compassion." A native of the Philippines, Sr. Bernard, serves in Holbrook AZ, in the heart of Navaho territory.
Referring to many of the women she has ministered to who have struggled with poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, Sister Bernard said: "When we see them really down, we try to help them get up and to realize they should not despair, God is merciful and forgiving," she said.
Praising the impact that Sister Mary Bernard has had on their lives, guest panelists in gripping moments of emotional testimony told FADICA and Extension how Sr. Bernard welcomed them back into the community with gentle acts of kindness including providing a place to stay, rehabilitative services and companionship.
"I would not be alive without the sisters", said one mother of seven children, and a panelist, who described to the audience her former life addicted to alcohol as a nightmarish "rollercoaster".
"You keep reaching out to them until they get hold of their life and find God in it," said Sr. Bernard's fellow religious, Sr. Mary Esther Roffi RSG, who also serves in Holbrook.
Reflecting on the ministries of sisters in the Home Mission dioceses, Extension President, Father Jack Wall told the conferees that "religious women recognize the power of risen life...where others see death, these women see something new being born."
Father Wall invited the foundations and donors present to join with Extension not only in furthering the work and ministry of sisters in the rural areas of the country, but in thinking about the vast need for leadership development and training for the future.
"These [home mission] dioceses are laboratories for the future where something new is taking shape," he said. "Extension invites all of FADICA members to join them in launching some new ways that knowledge, skills and formation can prepare laity to be powerful witnesses to hope in our home missions in the tradition of the powerful, loving ways patterned by our religious," he concluded.
The evening prior to the Conference, FADICA bestowed its highest honor on Bishop Ricardo Ramírez CSB, Founding bishop of the Diocese of Las Cruces and a board member of the Catholic Church Extension Society.
Commenting on his faith community, Bishop Ramírez said, "Las Cruces is a frontier Church...the greatest pastoral challenge is the geographical distances that separate our parishes...our treasure are the people whose faith inspired hope and generous service to promote the Reign of God."