The Home Front
CHICAGO — For many Catholics in America, parish life evokes images of air-conditioned churches, well-staffed lay ministries and ever-expanding activity centers.
But for Catholics in the 80 American dioceses deemed mission areas by the Catholic Extension Society, simply organizing Sunday Mass can be a monumental feat.
In the remote outpost of Unalaska, Alaska, for example, the 200 parishioners of St. Christopher by the Sea eagerly await the twice-a-month visits by Father Leroy Clementich. The 81-year-old Holy Cross priest devotedly makes the 1,600-mile roundtrip flight from Anchorage to the westernmost parish in the United Sates, where no local priest resides.
Father Clementich hears confessions, celebrates Mass and consecrates additional hosts in case a priest cannot make the journey the following weekend.
Across rural America, from Unalaska to Appalachia, dedicated missionaries pilot small planes and drive pick-up trucks, bringing the Gospel to Catholic outposts.
For the past 100 years, Catholic Extension, the largest supporter of missionary work in America, has built churches, provided the sacraments and supported vocations in dioceses that lack the resources to provide for themselves.
Since its founding in Chicago in 1905, Catholic Extension has raised and distributed nearly $400 million to help build more than 12,000 churches and parish centers. It has provided critical financial support for thousands of priests, religious and lay missionaries.
“When Catholics think of missionary work, they picture foreign missions. They are not aware of the many missions here in the U.S. — those small Catholic communities that do not have the resources to provide what we have in our parishes,” said Bishop William Houck, the president of Catholic Extension.
Father Francis Clement Kelley, the society's founder, was similarly surprised. In 1893, the young priest was sent to Lapeer, Mich., where he first encountered Catholic poverty, witnessing local residents attending Mass in makeshift churches.
Father Kelley built a traditional Gothic church in the center of town and joined a lecture tour across America to pay off construction costs.
In town after town, Father Kelley witnessed dire conditions. He penned a letter in Ecclesiastical Review, the official clergy publication of the time, urging the Church in the United States to launch a society to provide for Catholics in rural communities.
Father Kelley secured the support of Chicago Archbishop James Quigley and founded the Catholic Church Extension Society. Five years later, Pope Pius X elevated Catholic Extension to a papal society.
Church on Wheels
From its inception, Catholic Extension has relied on ingenuity and heroism to promote the faith. In the early 1900s, railroad chapel cars rolled across states in the West and South, where only three in 10 towns had a church and a priest.
Detroit businessman Ambrose Petry donated three of these cars — affectionately called the St. Anthony, the St. Peter and the St. Paul.
The rail cars were complete with altar, pews, confessional, an office and priest's lodging. When these “churches” rolled into town, Catholics would be lined up to attend Mass and confession, have babies baptized and get married.
Catholic Extension also plied a chapel boat to serve river communities.
Today, rural towns across the United States have similar needs. In fact, Bishop Houck attested that churches require ever-greater support from Catholic Extension, as the number of priests in America has sharply declined and the cost of living has dramatically increased. Today, more than 3,000 parishes lack a resident priest.
In the diocese of Anchorage, a small core group of priests serves 22 rural parishes scattered across thousands of square miles. Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, who flies a 1974 Cessna 206, leads them. With the help of Catholic Extension, Archbishop Schwietz completed flying lessons and logs more than 10,000 miles a year traveling to mission parishes across the rugged wilderness.
This year, Catholic Extension gave the diocese $225,000, and has contributed more then $7 million overall. The diocese also received $170,000 from the Catholic Home Mission Appeal sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Catholic Extension helped the families of St. Christopher by the Sea finally acquire a permanent home. While not a grand cathedral, the refurbished plumber's shop can accommodate the growing congregation.
And for that, parishioner Annabelle Wilt is grateful.
“Without the assistance of Catholic Extension, we wouldn'd have a church,” Wilt said.
Wilt recalled the 1970s when the Catholic community met in any location they could find — from living rooms to a non-denominational community church. Later, parishioners regularly gathered for Mass in the conference room of a local fish processing plant.
More than 5,000 miles from Unalaska, in Clarksdale, Miss., Society of the Divine Word Brother Matt Connors thanked Catholic Extension for the support his diocese receives.
For Brother Connors, the mission field is a minefield. He wages a battle of peace among troubled, violent youth in the Mississippi Delta. He often places himself directly in the line of fire between rival gangs, effectively calling a truce. He has been shot at several times and attacked.
In a state whose Catholic population totals only 2.4%, Brother Connors is a lone voice for the Church. If not for the support of Catholic Extension, he contended, “Maybe I wouldn'd even be here.”
Brother Connors uses the funds provided by Catholic Extension to give work to gang members, support single mothers and bring Christ's mercy to youth. His self-sacrifice has helped turn around many lives and earned him the nickname “Dad.”
Catholic Extension features people like Brother Connors in its Extension magazine. Anyone may receive six free issues through the organization's website (CatholicExtension.org). The society continues its support of him and other unsung heroes like Father Tom Frost, who covers 270,000 miles offering Mass on the bed of his pick-up truck.
To commemorate its centennial, Catholic Extension has published a book, Mission America, to educate Catholics about home missions and has produced a historical documentary called The Invisible Church. A public exhibit featuring historical artifacts from Catholic Extension's first 100 years is currently touring the country.
John Severance writes from Chicago, Illinois.
- July 10-16, 2005