At a January event in Houston, Catholic Extension honored Cecilia Abbott, the First Lady of Texas, with its Spirit of Francis Award. Extension recognized her “special commitment to Catholic education in Texas” as well as her “lifelong devotion to service and to philanthropy, in particular to the Catholic Church in Texas.”
In presenting the award, Catholic Extension’s president, Father Jack Wall, said, “Throughout her life, Mrs. Abbott has lived and embodied the important lesson of faith, a faith that she learned from her parents and immigrant grandparents.” The lesson, he said, was “that you are meant to dedicate your life to helping and uplifting others through education and through works of charity.”
The Texas First Lady’s passion for Catholic education has its roots in her career as a teacher, vice principal and principal in Catholic schools.
The awards dinner drew more than 150 guests. Houston-Galveston’s Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza served as co-host. In addition, Bishops Curtis Guillory, Oscar Cantú, Michael Pfeifer and Ricardo Ramirez also attended the event.
In her acceptance speech, Mrs. Abbott said she was humbled by receiving the award, which is named for St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis and the founder of Catholic Extension, Father Francis Clement Kelley.
She added that she was “particularly touched” by the award’s connection to St. Francis. She recounted that, while growing up in San Antonio, she loved to play in her church with her dog Pancho. It was her dog’s favorite place, so much so that it was not unusual to hear an announcement like this at Sunday Mass: “Would the Phalens please remove your dog from the church.” She related, “My parents must have been mortified, but I know that St. Francis, with his love for all animals, would have understood.”
Abbott also quoted the line from the Prayer of St. Francis that “it is in giving that we receive.”
“I believe that we are each called to service, to give of ourselves,” she said. “That service may simply be sharing a warm smile or a warm meal, a few extra hours or a few extra dollars, but that service changes lives.”
Catholic Extension has had a strong presence in Texas ever since its first grants in 1906 included two church-building projects. When adjusted for inflation, Catholic Extension has provided more than $162 million over the past 111 years for church-building projects, seminarian education, other leadership development and various ministries in Texas dioceses.
Abbott selected to direct the more than $100,000 raised during the event toward supporting seminarian education in Texas. Catholic Extension funds scholarships for 70 seminarians from mission dioceses at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, Assumption in San Antonio and Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving.
Archbishop Fiorenza, who in the early 1980s was the bishop of the mission diocese of San Angelo, said, Catholic Extension “is truly one of the most important organizations in the Church here in the United States. Without it, the Church in Texas and throughout the West and the South would not have the lifeblood that allows it to build strong, vibrant Catholic communities.”