East St. Louis seems to be one of the forgotten cities in America. Many people think that East St. Louis is simply the eastern side of St. Louis, Missouri. But East St. Louis is in fact its own city, in Illinois; it is across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, MO.
Once a thriving industrial city, the population in East St. Louis has shrunk from a high of 82,000 in the 1950s, to less than 24,000 people today. The city is 99% African American, and 46% of the population live in poverty. It has been cited as one of the cities with the highest crime rates per capita.
On a recent visit to St. Augustine of Hippo Church in East St. Louis, we passed blocks and blocks of deserted buildings. St. Augustine’s is the last Catholic Church in East St. Louis, in a city that at one time had 14 Catholic Churches; it was established in 2006 when the four remaining parishes combined. St. Augustine’s parish is housed in what was previously St. Joseph Church, which Catholic Extension helped build in 1987.
Fr. Carroll Mizicko, a Franciscan, is the pastor. He was one of three Franciscans who first came to the diocese in 2002. At that time, a friary was built in East St. Louis so that the Franciscans could reside there. Catholic Extension awarded a grant to assist with the construction and furnishing of their chapel.
When you meet Fr. Carroll, you immediately can tell that he is a kind man who cares deeply for the people to whom he ministers. Fr. Carroll has spent his life in ministry in predominantly African American parishes, including the south side of Chicago. He talks of the parishioners of St. Augustine’s, most of whom are older, as still feeling very connected to the church that is in the city where they grew up. He speaks candidly of the painful history of the city, as well as the struggles that exist in the parish.
The people of St. Augustine’s parish and Fr. Carroll do a lot of community outreach; he is involved with the Catholic Urban Programs which has a number of programs and services for the people of East St. Louis, including the Griffin Center, an after school program for the children living in the housing projects. Both CUP and the Griffin Center have been recipients of Catholic Extension funding in the past. Also, over the years Fr. Carroll has continued to celebrate Mass for many of our donors who have made requests. Our donors’ prayer requests give him encouragement as well as much needed support.
When asked what gives him hope in the midst of so much despair, Fr. Carroll immediately replies, “Well the Lord, of course.” And then he adds, “There is always hope.” He points out the signs of hope in the community: the good work that the Griffin Center does, the recent involvement of various universities in trying to encourage urban development, the large groups of college students and young people who come to East St Louis to do service, and the Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic School, that is still going.
As we hear of all this, we are reminded again of the difference between optimism and hope in our Christian faith. While optimism is focused on the individual and their own ability to believe that tomorrow will be better, as Christians we place our hope in God. With our faith placed in God, no matter how bleak things get, we still have that hope.
Catholic Extension’s support is about “Building faith, Inspiring hope, and Igniting change.”
Fr. Carroll and churches like St. Augustine’s are indeed inspiring that hope.