Last year, Catholic Extension launched its priest immersion program, an initiative that invites priests to experience the Church in the poorest areas of the country.
Funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., these trips offer those who are visited — pastoral leaders working on the front lines of some of the most impoverished communities in America, along with the people they serve — the opportunity to share their stories and the assurance that they are neither alone nor forgotten. In turn, the trips allow pastors who visit the missions to remember that the Church is larger than just their parish.
Over three days, four priests from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia visited four parishes and a Catholic high school on St. Thomas and St. Croix, meeting the priests, deacons and religious sisters who work there. They also visited Catholic Charities facilities, a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen. The hope they witnessed in the midst of suffering inspired them to return to their parishes and share experiences from their encounters — enriching the vitality of their parishes and energizing them, in turn, to reach out to those on the margins. We invite you to share their experience.
Our trip began with a short walk to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, where we met the rector, Msgr. Jerome Feudjio, to learn about the Diocese of St. Thomas before celebrating Mass.
The Diocese at a Glance:
One third of the 105,000 residents live below the poverty line. Per capita annual income of just above $13,000, 35% below that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the continental U.S.
Bishop Herbert Bevard describes his diocese as “a very poor part of the richest country in the world.” The devastating hurricanes created a double difficulty of people first having lived through two Category 5 hurricanes, and second having to respond to the loss of income resulting from the absence of tourism — the industry that touches nearly everyone on the islands and which is their economic base.
For centuries, there have been two sides to the reality of these islands: one, that of a wealthy island paradise; the other, that of a place where local residents eke out a living, often in poverty. Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore down some of the distinctions between these two realities, in the middle of which stand many of the Church’s ministries.
The Diocese of St. Thomas has 8 parishes, serving 30,000 Catholics.
St. Thomas only became a diocese in 1977. Since that time, Catholic Extension has granted $3.1 million in today’s dollars to support hurricane relief, seminarian training, and other activities and ministries.
We visited a soup kitchen and food pantry run by Catholic Charities just down the road from the cathedral and met the staff there. This Catholic ministry helps those struggling with poverty on the island.
Next, we headed to Saint Patrick Church in Fredericksted where Fr. Boniface-Blanchard showed us around.
The parish has struggled since the hurricanes hit in the fall of 2017. Many parishioners have left because of the damage to the area, and as a result, weekly collections are low.The school, which has served the community for over a century and which has a capacity for 500 students, is down to just 75 students.
The parish is working to repair the roof, shutters, fence and other parts of the property. Since the hurricane, they have celebrated Mass in the church hall, but they hope to be able to use the church within a few months.
From St. Patrick we went to St. Joseph High School to meet Principal Sandra Miranda and the Head of School, Fr. John Mark. We toured the school and had the opportunity to meet several students. Some of the seniors spoke of their plans for the coming year. Many are hopeful to attend college in the continental United States.
Then we traveled to Barrenspot, where Fr. Simon Obeng showed us around Sts. Joachim and Ann Church. After staff from Catholic Extension witnessed the damage to the church hall and rectory a few months ago,it was good to see the parish back online and available for use.
Damage at Sts. Joachim and Ann Church in fall of 2017 and the church after repair.
You can learn more about our immersion initiative for pastors in this video.