March 21, 2018

Six months after Hurricane Maria wreaked unprecedented devastation on the island of Puerto Rico, Catholic Extension is launching a new campaign called Patrons of Puerto Rico. This effort will assist and sustain Puerto Rican parishes so they can continue their spiritual and corporal works of mercy and serve their communities.

Puerto Rican parishes have been so inspiring in their response to the recent hurricanes. Often operating out of badly damaged buildings and celebrating Mass in temporary quarters, parishes have rallied armies of volunteers to distribute relief supplies and provide community and connection for the elderly and most vulnerable.

In this time of crisis, parishes across the island have exhausted themselves in providing material and spiritual comfort, while their own financial sources have been greatly diminished by the increases in poverty and unemployment and the slow progress toward recovery.

Father Jorge Morales

The needs of Puerto Rico’s parishes are great, and they will require support over the next few years.

Catholic Extension has a 110-year history of supporting the parishes of Puerto Rico. With this new campaign, the Chicago-based papal society is inviting individual donors, parishes and church groups to partner with it and “adopt” a parish. View an interactive map that tells the stories of Puerto Rican Catholic communities helping their neighbors.

During a Feb. 27-March 1 visit to Puerto Rico, Catholic Extension staff met with Father Jorge Morales, the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in the northern Puerto Rican town of Vega Baja, and several of his parishioners. The parish is part of the Diocese of Arecibo.

A couple of days after a direct hit from Hurricane Maria had devastated much of Vega Baja and after the floodwaters had receded enough, Father Morales and some of his parishioners were finally able to reach their historic church.

The storm had ripped open the heavy doors, flooded the church, torn off the roof and smashed the windows. It had been left in ruin and was unusable.

“We were heartbroken,” said Miguel Ríos, one of the parishioners. “This church is like a second home to us.”

But Father Morales told them, “The church building is secondary. The important thing is to take care of our neighbors. They need us now.”

For the next few months, Father Morales and the parishioners devoted themselves to assisting the families most affected. They were the first to reach and bring food to the hardest-hit neighborhoods of Los Naranjos and Sabana, where many people had lost everything. They organized a coordinated effort to deliver food, water, supplies and hope to the people.

For six weeks, they prepared and delivered about 200 warm meals each day.

Volunteers from Our Lady of the Rosary

“It was incredible,” Father Morales remembers. “I never asked for a single dollar of donations to buy the food. But somehow every day people who had very little themselves gave us some of their money or brought food that we could cook.”

Father Morales said he was struck by the great sense of generosity in such an extreme crisis. His parishioners are working-class and poor people, and even some who had lost much themselves would reach out to those who had it even worse, counting themselves “bendito,” blessed.

The aftermath of the hurricane, Father Morales said, “has been an opportunity for us to rediscover our Christian vocation, which is to go out and reach out to those in need and to proclaim the good news with our witness of service and practice of charity and solidarity.”

Six months after Hurricane Maria, that work continues today. Lissette Díaz, one of the parish’s most dedicated volunteers, hasn’t stopped moving since the second day after the hurricane. “It has been a unique and wonderful experience,” she said. “I give thanks to God for our parish community.” She added with a laugh that she has lost 12 pounds from running around to help people.

For the past six months, the parish has been celebrating Mass in a crammed room of the parish center, where buckets are set up to catch the water dripping from the ceiling.

Even before Maria, Catholic Extension was no stranger to this parish and its pastor, providing construction grants and supporting the pastor’s seminary education. Over the years it has funded building projects for all four Vega Baja parishes, and it continues to support the education of Puerto Rico’s priests.

Our Lady of the Rosary Parish is not an isolated example of a church heroically serving its community after the hurricane. Churches all across the island have risen to the occasion.

“In moments of great difficulty and challenge, you can see the power of faith communities alive in people’s hearts and lives,” said Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, on March 1, during Catholic Extension’s visit to Puerto Rico. “People come together in faith in moments of crisis to strengthen one another and to realize that they are not alone. They are reaching out beyond themselves to become God’s healing touch and healing care for those in the communities around them. As faith communities, we embody the spirit of God. We are one together.”

The crucial role that faith communities have played in delivering help, hope and healing to people has underscored their vital importance for the communities they serve, particularly in remote and isolated areas.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in November, “The island’s Christians are clearly playing a central role in the recovery. … Although many church buildings have been damaged, the churches that remain are a haven for those in need.” In fact, even those church communities whose buildings were damaged found ways to carry out amazing works of mercy, lifting up the communities around them.

To a great extent, the exemplary outreach of the Puerto Rican churches is also a result of and testament to the 110 years of Catholic Extension building churches on the island. Working with the six dioceses of Puerto Rico, Catholic Extension has provided support for church construction, leadership development and ministry.

Praying in a home destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Puerto RicoSince its first church-building assistance to the Archdiocese of San Juan in 1908, Catholic Extension has supported 1,400 construction and repair projects of church buildings in Puerto Rico. There are few churches on the island that Catholic Extension hasn’t helped at some point in time.

Since Hurricane Maria, Catholic Extension has provided and committed more than $1.1 million in support of the Church in Puerto Rico. Donors have very generously responded to Catholic Extension’s fundraising appeals to help all the mission dioceses devastated by last year’s hurricanes — the six dioceses of Puerto Rico, the Diocese of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas.

In addition to extending emergency funding immediately after the hurricanes, Catholic Extension has been supporting poor parishes and their ongoing ministries and services to their communities.

As recounted in news reports, government and relief agencies failed to reach many of the more isolated, impoverished areas for weeks. In some places, residents note that without the churches springing into action, relief efforts would have been totally stymied.

Without churches, many helpless, elderly community members stranded in destroyed or damaged homes would not have been sought out and cared for. Without churches, many of the hundreds of thousands of meals that were so desperately needed in the first few weeks would not have been prepared and distributed.

Without churches, many people would not have been able to access medical services they desperately needed. Without churches, many would feel alone, abandoned and desperate.

With churches, people instead have found the strength to carry on in the face of overwhelming difficulties and mental stresses, which are continuing today. Churches serve all in need, and, according to Father Morales, many non-Catholics have expressed their gratitude for that.

“They have told us, ‘How good that we have felt the Church so close, that you have come when we needed you most.’”

Even after six months, the pain caused by Hurricane Maria is still on full display. Once-bustling town centers and business districts are shuttered in cities large and small, signaling a massive loss of incomes and livelihoods. Collapsed buildings, flooded homes and tarp-covered, roofless structures abound.

It has taken excruciatingly long to restore power and running water to much of the island. Even at the six-month point, 10 percent of households have not yet received power.

Not only did Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastate many of the island’s homes, buildings and infrastructures, but the blow to the already struggling Puerto Rican economy has also led to many Puerto Ricans losing their jobs and livelihoods and has increased poverty on the island. Puerto Rico’s poverty rate is now at an astonishing 52.7 percent. Children continue to be the most vulnerable, and in some mountain areas, child poverty rates exceed 80 percent.

Puerto Ricans with flag in Caguas

Just prior to the hurricanes, Archbishop Roberto González of San Juan, Puerto Rico, invoked the protection and intercession of the patroness of Puerto Rico, Our Lady of Divine Providence, and assured the people that “a united Puerto Rico is stronger than any hurricane that tries to break our spirit and bend our wills.”

He still exudes that firm belief that God’s providence will provide, even after struggling through the exhausting months of rescue and relief operations. “I feel very confident about the future,” he said, “because I have seen how our people have come together after the hurricane.”

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