Catholic Extension has a long history of helping Catholics in need. The vast majority of its funding goes to Catholics in the United States, but periodically a foreign appeal has also received support.
Such was the case in Europe, in the 1920s, when people throughout the continent were suffering from the aftermath of World War I. Among the devastated were the citizens of Austria — especially its priests, religious sisters and children.
Catholic Extension stepped up. In doing so, it harkened back to an earlier time when Austria had also helped Catholics in America during their own missionary days.
Extension magazine called attention to European plight
In July 1920 Father Francis Clement Kelley, founding president of Catholic Extension and editor of the monthly Extension, used the magazine (see right) to voice his alarm about conditions in Europe after World War I.
In an editorial piece, he lamented that Catholic America did not fully grasp that “one of the most terrible famines in history holds the Austrian people in its grip.”
He added that one particular aspect of the famine in Austria had so far gone unnoticed: “It is the condition of the clergy and sisterhoods. The people in their misery always turn to their priests. They are besieged with appeals."
“There are priests trying to live on one dollar a month,” he continued. “There are sisters — young sisters — who can walk only with the aid of canes to support them; for they are weak with hunger, and their very bones are softened with the lack of proper nourishment.”
In parts of the country, he wrote, there was “not even enough wheat to make altar breads.”
Father Kelley recognized that it was outside the normal scope of the mission of Catholic Extension to appeal for relief for an overseas famine, but felt as though it was his duty to write about “this most unusual and terrible condition.”
Donations started rolling in. By the end of July, Kelley traveled to Vienna to distribute the first $15,000. In the next few months, Catholic Extension raised more than $150,000 ($1.8 million in today’s dollars).
Extension magazine regularly presented stories from the frontlines of Austria, often publishing letters from visiting American priests who gave graphic details of the tragedy.
One letter noted that, in a reversal of roles, the appeal for Austria was giving back for the sustained support Austrian Catholics had provided for Catholic mission work in the United States in a time of need.
A deep concern for the impoverished children of Austria — pictured here at a children’s home in Wolfsberg — inspired Father Kelley to act.
Austrian mission society had helped Catholics in the U.S.
In 1829 an organization called the Leopoldine Society was established in Vienna to help Catholic missions in America.
A year earlier, Father Frederick Rese had been sent to Europe by Bishop Edward Fenwick of Cincinnati to plead the case of the struggling Church in America. In Vienna Father Rese created great interest by telling stories of the harsh conditions, poverty, scarcity of priests and the possibilities to expand the Catholic Church in the New World.
In addition to funds, the society sent church furnishings such as paintings and statuary. It also spurred European missionary priests to serve in America, including Father Frederic Baraga, who became bishop of Marquette, Michigan, and St. John Neumann, who served as bishop of Philadelphia.
Many dioceses in the U.S. benefitted from the largesse of the society, including St. Louis, Charleston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Mobile, New Orleans, Natchez, Richmond, Chicago, St. Paul, Hartford, Galveston and Little Rock.
Between 1830 and 1910, the Leopoldine Society sent $680,500 (about $15 million in today’s dollars) to the U.S. missions.
Later Father Kelley paid tribute to this vital support in his book The Story of Extension: “The relief work which Church Extension took up for Austria brought to mind that in the early days of the Church in America, when it would have been impossible for us to have started a Church Extension Society of our own, Austria had one for the American missions. It was called the Leopoldine Society.”
Missionary status changes
The whole United States was once mission territory.
It was not until the early 20th century that the Church in America was deemed strong enough to be weaned from foreign assistance. In 1908 Pope Pius X declared that the United States was no longer a mission country — it had established basic Catholic infrastructure and also had the support of a new organization, Catholic Extension, that was founded in 1905.
Catholic Extension continues to focus on mission dioceses in the United States and its territories. Occasionally, some become strong enough to graduate from needing assistance. This year the number of mission dioceses decreased from 94 to 90.
But Catholic Extension is keenly aware that circumstances and financial conditions change. The concept of “missionary territory” is always evolving. With an ear to the ground, Extension responds to the needs of Catholics, even if they occasionally bring the organization outside its established boundaries to address urgent dire situations. Now that’s a universal Church.