The Red Lake Reservation one of the most isolated in the United States, covers nine counties in heavily wooded northwestern Minnesota. Although it’s only 250 miles from the Twin Cities, it feels like another world.
“It was in the middle of nowhere,” said Rosemary “Ro” Geisler, who serves as parish manager at Holy Family Catholic Community in Inverness, Illinois, and was on an immersion trip to the reservation.
Father Terry Keehan, Holy Family’s pastor, and Sue Geegan, director of outreach and justice, also made the trip – the second trip for Holy Family staffers. In 2013, they visited mission parishes in Appalachia. That trip led to a successful Lenten Service Project through which Holy Family parishioners raised funds to support Catholic Extension’s work with St. Paul’s Church in McKee, Kentucky.
Last fall when Holy Family asked about another trip to witness the work of Catholic Extension, they were invited to St. Mary’s Mission Church and School, which serves the remote reservation.
For the 6,000 Ojibwe or Chippewa who live there, life is hard. The unemployment rate hovers around 60 percent. Homeless shelters are always full, and a cycle of dependency and despair contributes to alcoholism, violence and a high suicide rate, particularly among young people. One study of ninth graders at Red Lake High School found that 20 percent of boys and 48 percent of girls had attempted suicide.
“There’s a real sadness and poverty there, material and spiritual poverty,” said Father Terry. But St. Mary’s is a source of light, and Catholic Extension has been by St. Mary’s side since 1979, providing financial support so this Catholic mission can continue to help educate and care for those who might otherwise be neglected.
St. Mary’s is led by Father Jerry Rogers, who arrived in 2009. Father Terry, Ro and Sue were awed by his energy, his passion for growth, and his respect for and devotion to those he serves.
Approximately one-third of the residents are baptized Catholics, but Father Jerry noted that even the non-Catholics on the reservation have a “fond relationship” with St. Mary’s. “He (Father Jerry) is a Catholic priest, but he’s one of them,” said Father Terry.
“He’s their leader, whether they’re Catholic or not.” “Father Jerry is so uplifting,” said Sue. “He has such hope, and a connection to the people. It’s just beautiful to see.”
Father Jerry believes that educating and empowering children is the key to transforming lives – and futures. Along with a new principal, seven teachers and two aides, he is dedicated to St. Mary’s K-6 school, which serves nearly 100 children.
“The kids at St. Mary’s looked so happy and engaged in this tiny place with a makeshift library on a stage,” said Sue. “These children are cared for. . .they looked like they loved being there.”
She added, “Father Jerry understands that breaking the cycle of poverty starts with the children. He’s starting to see a spark. The kids want to go to school now.”
Father Jerry also is bringing the children closer to their faith. According to the visitors from Holy Family, they want to be in church. They’re encouraging their parents to come to Mass also.
“We watched as Father Jerry gathered those children around the altar,” said Father Terry. “It was so obvious that he’s engaged in the spiritual dimension of their lives. 42 Donors He’s feeding that in them. It’s a great thing.”
When the group from Holy Family returned home, they were inspired to act again. They are focusing their 2015 Lenten Service Project on St. Mary’s. “We want to do anything we can to give Father Jerry the tools he needs,” said Ro. “He’s got a hill to climb.”
The group noted that partnering with Catholic Extension has given them a deeper understanding of how to work through the Church to empower people for the long term.
“We used to think about charity more short-term,” said Sue. “We thought we had the answers. We’ve learned from Catholic Extension that we need to listen and learn, and think bigger. Catholic Extension is building souls.”