By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
More than 30 years ago, St. Paul Parish in Vienna, Ill., was able to take a big step forward with the help of Catholic Extension.
The parish was ready to expand from a small wooden structure in order to accommodate its growing congregation. Among the groups that contributed money to the project was what was then known as the Catholic Church Extension Society, an organization devoted to building and strengthening isolated faith communities.
The $50,000 donation from the group helped make it possible to move forward with building plans.
Now, St. Paul parishioners are paying that generosity forward, donating $10,000 to Catholic Extension to assist another parish with its building needs.
“We recognized that we were helped and blessed and supported when we needed it,” says Father Thomas Barrett, pastor of St. Paul. “And the parish council has seen our way clear to pass it on.”
Father Barrett says the gift was prompted by a tangible reminder of that 30-year-old assistance. When the Catholic Church Extension Society made the donation back in 1988, they included a small plaque, asking the parish to remember the benefactors in their prayers.
Over the years, the plaque got forgotten, stuck away in a drawer.
Upon finding it, “we pulled it out and framed it and put it on the wall for people to notice,” Father Barrett says. “I think people had lost any sense of remembrance of it, until it was called to their attention. That’s where the idea started with the parish council.”
St. Paul is among many parishes and ministries in the diocese that have benefited from assistance from what is now called Catholic Extension.
The organization was founded in 1905 by Father Francis Clement Kelley, in an effort to help Catholic parishes on the frontier build churches. Now the organization focuses its efforts in three areas:
• Helping build and repair churches;
• Funding education for seminarians, religious and lay leaders;
• And supporting Catholic schools, religious education programs, campus ministries and outreach programs.
Last year, Catholic Extension gave out more than $23 million in assistance to 87 dioceses across the United States, including the Diocese of Belleville.
In the past few years, grants to the diocese from the organization have funded positions in various ministries, seminarian education and mass stipends. The Messenger newspaper was recently a recipient of a grant to help fund a part-time marketing position.
“Catholic Extension has been truly generous to our diocese, funding many different projects and programs for parishes, diocesan offices and agencies,” says Judy Phillips, director of development for the diocese. “Years ago, they even helped fund the building of St. Joseph Parish in East St. Louis (now called St. Augustine of Hippo).”
While the organization’s early work was done with frontier parishes, today, they support parishes that may be isolated in other ways, says Natalie Donatello, senior manager of parish partnerships for Catholic Extension.
“Often it’s parishes in places where the Catholic population is a minority within the community,” Donatello says. “That’s why you’ll find us in places like Jackson, Miss., and Little Rock, Ark.”
The organization’s work is entirely donor-funded, which is why Donatello was thrilled to learn about St. Paul’s donation. She says Catholic Extension is currently reaching out to parishes they’ve supported in the past, asking them to consider exactly this type of gift.
“We didn’t have to go looking for them, they came to us,” she says. “It’s rare – it doesn’t happen very often.”
Over the past several decades, Father Barrett says St. Paul Parish has become more financially secure. In 2010, a new church building was opened, with the 1988 building being converted into a parish hall.
When money budgeted to pay a parish secretary went unused (someone volunteered to do the work), the council made the decision to make the donation.
Father Barrett says the organization responded to St. Paul’s gift by explaining where it would be used. The money will go directly to St. Luke Catholic Church in Warren, Ark., which serves a predominately Hispanic migrant worker population.
St. Luke’s tiny, 100-year-old church building barely holds its current congregation. “They’re growing significantly, really outgrowing their church,” Father Barrett says.
In addition, the old church requires such extensive repairs that it is considered economically unfeasible to restore it. So the Diocese of Little Rock has purchased a nearby commercial building with plans to convert it to a church and parish hall. The St. Paul donation will go toward that project.
“It would be a close parallel” to St. Paul’s situation back in the 1980s, Father Barrett says. “More specifically, passing it on and helping them to have a new church.”
Donatello says Catholic Extension tries to forge these ties between individual parishes so that people can see the concrete results of their assistance.
“One parish can really make a difference in the life of another parish,” she says.
Catholic Extension asked the St. Paul Parish Council for a photo of that long-ago donation plaque, and has shared it on social media.
“I think they hope it might inspire other parishes that have been helped to consider passing it on as well,” Father Barrett says.
Catholic Extension is always seeking donations from individuals and parishes. Parishes can order their calendars from the organization, with proceeds benefiting mission dioceses. Catholic Extension also offers a Catholic Gift Annuity program, through which donors can designate a specific diocese, parish or school as a beneficiary.
For more information, visit the organization’s website at catholicextension.org