“This is what Church is really about,” Father Jack Wall commented to me, as a team from Catholic Extension experienced eastern Oklahoma, where the Catholic Church is growing exponentially. We met with the spirited parishioners of San Juan Diego Mission in Stilwell, Oklahoma, a community that gathers in a simple storage unit, but whose visible desire to live their faith and build a bright future for their children is their most distinguishing characteristic.
The front portion of their rented storage unit serves as their “church,” a place they’ve called home for all nine years of the community’s existence. The cloth on their donated pews is a retina-burning, bright yellow—worn out hand-me-downs dating back to at least the mid-1970s. The church retains a musty odor, because when it rains the roof serves as nothing more than a sieve. Parishioners must celebrate Mass amid buckets to collect the rain water. In the back of the storage unit—an area that looks akin to my garage—is the parish’s “community and religious education center.” There is no air conditioning, so parishioners endure the blistering, 100-plus degree Oklahoma summers, as well as the cold winters. But, cosmetics aside, this church has all the elements needed to be successful: the people have vision, faith, passion, a sense of community, a strong worth ethic and youthfulness. When the church opened its doors in April 2002, there were only about 23 families gathering for Mass. Now, not even a decade later, and still without the benefit of a resident priest or adequate physical space, their community has grown to 300 families strong, or about 1,000 people.
Fr. Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, shares pozole with parishioners in their garage-like community center.
On the evening that we visited, parishioners packed into every nook of their humble space, sharing with us a bowl of pozole and some words of welcome. I noticed the innumerable babies and toddlers, and the throngs of teenagers seated in the church. Antonio Garcia, CCD Coordinator for the parish, stood up and conveyed the ultimate vision they all share for the parish: “Here, our youth and our children are our priority.” Parishioners informed us that they are seeking Catholic Extension’s help to develop a peer ministry and faith formation program that will help keep teens close to the Church. The lure of drugs and a life on the streets are constant dangers that youth and parents often alluded to during our conversation. Several parishioners shared with us how important their faith was to them, as well as their faith community. “When one of us suffers, we all suffer,” added one person. In the future, they also hope to build a church with Catholic Extension’s support, so that they can be a more visible presence in their community. They’ve been selling tamales and raising money to support their dream of one day having a more dignified place to call home, and have collected about $40,000 to date, a significant accomplishment for this under-resourced community. Both in the near- and long-terms, Catholic Extension will continue to work through the Diocese of Tulsa to support the youth of this area, and continue the dialogue about their need for physical space.
Parish teens show their pride with their uniformed look. They express desire to stay close to the Church.
After we left Stilwell, I made this realization: no matter how many communities I visit, I never cease to be amazed by the deep faith and level of commitment of the Catholics that I encounter. I marvel at how those with so little on the surface are really so incredibly rich. The courageous people of Stilwell can teach something to the rest of the Church about what it means to be a Catholic. They teach that the gift of faith is truly the only gift that we actually need. That faith enables us to do all things passionately, practically, and with great perseverance. The Catholic community of Stillwell should give us all hope for the future, because they teach that no obstacle is too great for people who stand ready to live their faith and answer the call to serve. — Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension