NEW YORK—John Dillon is a Catholic grade school teacher who does not often travel beyond his home in the Bronx, New York. Yet he is a missionary who works quietly each day with hundreds of other people he never sees to make converts in the heavily Protestant South.
As members of the Society of Sts. Francis Xavier and Therese, Dillon and his associates mail a postcard a day to different households in one of the southern states which contains a brief review of the life of Jesus and an invitation to receive information on the Church he founded. The postcards, with a detachable response form, come from the Society, and the names and addresses come from telephone books in the target areas. Dillon and his fellow members simply fold one of the postcards, address it, attach a stamp, say a short prayer, and drop the card in the mailbox to the unknown person whose life may soon be changed forever. In some ways, says Dillon, his act is one of blind faith. If a person in the South responds to the mailing, the request for more information goes to the Catholic Home Study Service in Perryville, Mo., which is funded by the Vincentian Fathers and the Knights of Columbus.
“I never know who I am reaching and exactly how many people respond,” Dillon told the Register. “Yet I still think this is a significant way to evangelize. I'd rather do it this way than any other.”
Dillon is one of 502 members of the Society, which is named after the two patrons of missionaries, who represent very different styles of evangelization. St. Francis Xavier brought the faith to India and Japan and died on a mission to China. St. Therese spent the entirety of her brief religious life in a cloister, yet reached souls everywhere through her prayers and letters. In this way, she is a model for members of the mail evangelization apostolate.
The Society was founded in the early 1950s by Dr. Ambrose Pare, who was at the time a dentistry student at St. Louis University. He was involved in campus evangelization through a school Sodality, handing out pamphlets on the faith. At graduation, he searched for a way to continue spreading the Good News, even to people he would never meet.
“One day, I just got the idea that it would be great to put this on a big scale,” said Pare, now retired and living in the Queens section of New York City. “Then I heard that the Knights of Columbus was sponsoring a course on Catholicism by mail, with the objective being conversion. What could be better?”
He and a handful of Sodality members ordered phone books from southern cities, gathered Catholic literature, and made a slow start over a kitchen table. Over the years, the operation has become larger and more refined, with a nationwide network of mailers headed by group leaders and a newsletter, but Dr. Pare, now 74, still works essentially from a kitchen table. He does not own a computer and keeps member information on index cards.
“I still do everything by hand,” he said. “It's easier that way.”
He estimates that more than 500,000 postcards have been sent out by Society members in the past 45 years. In the past decade, more than 7,000 requests for further information have been received by the Catholic Home Study offices. How many converts have been made is anybody's guess, says Pare. The correspondence course on Catholicism takes the interested person only so far; for Baptism or reception into the Church, the correspondent is told to contact a local priest. Still, letters from people who have entered the Church come occasionally to the home study offices in Perryville, and some of these are reported in the newsletter.
“We have a story in the current issue about a woman who got one of the cards, went all the way to become a Catholic, and then brought a number of other people into the Church,” said Pare. “Once you send out a message, there is no telling what the Lord will do with it.”
Amazingly, Pare has never met a person who started on the road to conversion through the efforts of his Society, and he expresses no great desire to do so. He sees himself as a simple messenger, sending out the truth of the Gospel to whoever will listen.
“We send the cards out and the Lord takes care of the rest. We leave everything in the hands of the Lord,” he stated. “We make the small sacrifice of time and money, and we pray. What else can we do?”
The only feedback Pare and his members receive is a report every four months from the Home Study Service on how many requests for more information have been mailed back from each state. Members can gauge their effectiveness by checking the numbers in the state they are “targeting.”
“Seeing the numbers is the highlight for me,” said Dillon, whose current field of evangelization is North Carolina. “You know that we're reaching people and they're responding.”
For those who respond, the Home Study Service sends a book on the essentials of the faith, a workbook with questions, and a quiz sheet that may be filled out and sent back to the service for grading. After completing the course, a person is sent a letter of congratulations and suggestions on how to enter the Church. The service enrolls more than 9,000 people per year and about 3,000 complete the course annually, said Vincentian Father Oscar Lukefahr, director of the Home Study Service. People who respond as a result of Society mailings to the South make up a significant portion of these numbers. “The organization is responsible for a number of enrollments we would not get otherwise because they reach a part of the country where there are relatively few Catholics,” Father Lukefahr said. “They are a very important part of what we do, and Dr. Pare is certainly very dedicated to the work of evangelization.”
Deacon James Huvane, a member of the Society for more than 10 years, said, “We are going directly into people's homes without having to speak a word and gain somebody's trust, like a door-to-door evangelist. I've always been interested in spreading the faith, and this is a wonderful vehicle.”
Huvane is one of the few clerics in the largely lay organization. When he began mail evangelization, he was a New York City police sergeant. After retirement, he entered the archdiocesan seminary and is scheduled to be ordained a priest in December at age 67.
“I've been doing it for some time now. I think it's a great ideal. I do my little part in plating the seeds and God brings forth whatever fruit will come of it.” The dedication of members is shown by a man who had been sending out cards for years before being diagnosed with cancer. Before going for his first radiation treatment, he told a fellow member, “This is not going to stop me from working for Sts. Francis and Therese.”
The future of the Society depends on another form of evangelization: members recruiting new members. When Deacon Huvane was on the police force, he gathered a cadre of fellow Catholic officers to join the mailing effort. Soon after he entered the seminary, he had a number of students joining him in the once-a-day stop at the mailbox.
“It's such a great work, and something people can get involved in immediately. You don't need any special knowledge of the faith or a degree in theology before you can start reaching others with the faith,” he said.
The organization had a high of 800 mailers in the 1980s. Dr. Pare would like to double the present number of 502.
“All that it takes is a willingness to work for our Lord in a very simple, straightforward way,” he said. “It doesn't take much in terms of time and money to be a missionary from home.”
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.