At the Spirit of Francis Award dinner in Houston on Saturday, Feb. 24, Catholic Extension honored Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza for his leadership in the Catholic Church of Texas and for his unwavering commitment to serving the poor and vulnerable.
In presenting the Spirit of Francis Award to the archbishop emeritus of Galveston-Houston, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, who is the chancellor of Catholic Extension, said, “One of the hallmarks of Archbishop Fiorenza’s ministry has been his concern that nobody is left behind—whether that’s the unborn or the poor, the migrant, the elderly or those who are sick.”
Cardinal Cupich recalled that in a letter to Congress, Archbishop Fiorenza once wrote, “The needs of the poor and the most vulnerable must have first claim on our common efforts. The poor and the vulnerable can’t be left behind.”
More than 200 people attended the dinner at the Houstonian Hotel, which was co-chaired by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner, State Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett with his wife, Gwen Emmett. Bishop Curtis Guillory of Beaumont, Texas, and Bishop Emeritus Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, also attended, as did several state and local representatives and officials.
The Spirit of Francis Award takes its inspiration from three people named Francis, all of whom are known for embracing and reaching out to the poor: St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis and Father Francis Clement Kelley, the founder of Catholic Extension in 1905.
In his remarks at the event, Catholic Extension’s president, Father Jack Wall, thanked Houstonians “for the great inspiration that you have been to all of us in the United States and in the larger world as we have witnessed the great sense of solidarity with which you have walked and struggled through everything that happened in Hurricane Harvey.”
He noted that the night’s dinner was another expression of that solidarity because, at Archbishop Fiorenza’s request, the proceeds of the event will benefit the post-Hurricane Harvey rebuilding efforts in the neighboring Diocese of Beaumont, where Archbishop Fiorenza grew up.
In his acceptance remarks, Archbishop Fiorenza recalled his service from 1979 to 1985 as bishop of San Angelo, Texas, one of the 90 so-called mission dioceses served by Catholic Extension.
“In the small towns of the diocese,” the archbishop said, “I witnessed how, without the help of Catholic Extension, those small faith communities would not have been able to continue as vibrant communities who were making a contribution to the welfare of the people in that area.” Catholic Extension, he added, has been the “lifeblood” for many poor communities in the San Angelo diocese, throughout the South and beyond.
Large parts of the Beaumont, Texas, diocese—including Port Arthur, Beaumont and Orange—experienced catastrophic flooding as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Many people, especially in the poorer areas, lost their homes and still live in FEMA trailers.
Of the 50 parishes and missions in the diocese, 23 suffered damage. Four are still not able to hold Mass in their churches. Three of the five Catholic schools in the diocese were seriously damaged. With a herculean clean-up effort from many volunteers, Catholic schools were re-opened faster than their neighboring public schools, but major repairs are still pending. The Beaumont diocese’s most costly damage occurred at its Holy Family Retreat Center, where the flood water reached all the way up to the eaves of the roof.
Beaumont’s Bishop Guillory, who also serves on Catholic Extension’s board of governors, said that when he was growing up, he always looked for a rainbow after a storm. “After Harvey,” he said, “I did not see a rainbow. But strangers coming together to help one another, families helping each other, you helping us in Beaumont and helping the people of Houston, that is the rainbow.”
He added that people responded wonderfully after Harvey, “but the attention of the media is only short-lived. The tendency is for people to respond to the immediate needs, but then we move on to the next big story. With these kinds of tragedies, it is the long-term that you really have to work and struggle through.” He commended Catholic Extension for its good response both in the short and the long term.