The Diocese of Belleville may be small population-wise, but it has been blessed to have been home to many remarkable, saintly people.
Two of these saintly people, Joe Hubbard, now retired as director and founder of Catholic Urban Programs, and the late Sister Ann Connolly, ASC, were recognized for their selfless service with the Catholic Church Extension Society’s prestigious Lumen Christi Award. Sherry Miller, Daystar Community Program in Cairo, was nominated for the award in 2016.
The award recognizes a clergy or lay person who devoted his or her life to serving the poor in the most under-resourced dioceses in the U.S.
Now another selfless servant, Sister Julia Huiskamp, DC, MSW, has been nominated for the Lumen Christi Award. This is her second nomination.
In announcing the nomination Catholic Extension noted that Sister Julia Huiskamp has spent the past 60 years serving God and the poor, creating havens where people on the margins can build escape ladders out of poverty and violence.”
For half of those years, Sister Julia has worked with under-privileged children in the housing projects in East St. Louis.
In 1986, she founded Griffin Center — a community center that offers summer camps and after-school programs for kids. The center helps children develop their social and learning skills, deepen their character and ignite their faith.
As Sister Julia told Catholic Extension, “We made it our policy early on … to give these kids wings so they can fly out of here and set out to be their best selves.”
Before entering religious life 61 years ago, Sister Julia was a reporter for a daily newspaper in her hometown of Keokuk, Iowa. She says she started to think differently about her journalistic career after her first front-page photograph ran.
“It was a big deal to me,” she says. “But then my family was eating catfish one Friday night and my mother wrapped up the fish bones in the paper with my front page photo on it and put it in the garbage. I knew then that I wanted my work to be more lasting than that newspaper,” she recalled.
That revelation eventually led Sister Julia to the Daughters of Charity, who had taught in the parochial schools in Keokuk.
“I knew the sisters, and my mother was a Lady of Charity. I was attracted to their service to the poor,” she told The Messenger.
She started as a teacher, but later was allowed to pursue a master’s degree in social work at St. Louis University. From then on she would spend the rest of her religious life in programs that served the underprivileged.
Sister Julia was sent first to Chicago to work at a large multi-service Daughters of Charity agency on the city’s west side, offering services to children and adults.
“I worked for 18 years in Chicago,” she recalled. “I did everything; I ended up running the place. I loved it. I hated leaving, but our order was looking for under-served places in our provincial area where there were lots of poor people and we could make a difference.”
The new location they chose was East St. Louis, and Sister Julia arrived in 1985 to find a very different situation than she had in Chicago. There was no large agency through which she could work.
“They told me to look around and see what you can find to do,” Sister Julia said. “That unnerved me, coming from a place with a big organizational structure.”
Meanwhile the East St. Louis Housing Authority, which ran public housing projects, was being taken over by the federal government, who cited fraud and poor living conditions. But in a way the time was ripe for change.
“Social workers know that when big upheaval is happening, that’s the time to get involved,” she said.
She was already working with Catholic Urban Programs, and approached the housing authority to ask to use a boarded- up community center at the Villa Griffin housing development.
“We got the idea that we could do some after-school stuff, with kids,” she recalled.
Sister Julia obtained money from the Daughters of Charity – and some from her own family – and got the building back in shape, opening it as the Griffin Center in the summer of 1986.
She started with a summer day camp serving 20-30 children. From there, the center’s programs grew. Sister Julia started after-school programs at the Griffin Center, and visited families of the children.
After a drug lab in an apartment nearby was raided, they got permission to use the deserted apartment as a learning lab. As word spread about the success of the Griffin Center, residents of other East St. Louis housing developments approached her to open satellite programs in their neighborhoods.
Today the agency has five sites, offering recreational programs and academic assistance such as tutoring, homework help and computer training.
Relying almost entirely on donations, they provide shoes, uniforms and school supplies so that kids aren’t barred from school due to lack of material needs.
However, that practical, material support was only part of their mission.
“The other part is the social work part,” she said. “We teach children to respect each other, to settle things without a fight. Social skills. I don’t care how smart you are, you have to have those to get anywhere.”
Having retired as the director of the Griffin Center, Sister Julia still works on the financial records for the agency.
She continues to see clients helping adults in ways both small and large. She says that while conditions on the streets of East St. Louis haven’t improved in the years she’s been here, the prospects of many of the children have.
“There used to be kids on the street during the school day till October, because they didn’t have clothes, uniforms to wear to school,” Sister Julia said. “Kids were dropping out, many kids didn’t graduate high school. Now we’ve got many kids looking at college, saying ‘Yes, that’s something I can do.’
“The most satisfying thing is when kids come back, and they’re doing well. When they can look back and remember their experience here fondly.”
At 86, she says she has no plans to set aside her work.
“I don’t envision retiring to a life of bingo and watching Judge Judy, As long as my health holds up, I’ll keep working,” she says.
Bishop Michael McGovern released the following statement about Sister Julia’s nomination:
“The Diocese of Belleville is proud of Sister Julia; her tireless work has made a world of difference in the lives of so many impoverished children. I, along with many other people, see the light of Christ shine brightly in Sister Julia’s life.”