Inspiring Catholic leaders in poor communities show the way

CHICAGO — A diverse group of inspiring Catholic leaders is being recognized for bringing the light of Christ to poor communities across the United States. The group includes Mexican missionary sisters serving in Texas, a Franciscan priest ministering on a Native American reservation in Arizona, a young sister reaching out to young Middle Eastern Christians, a lay couple shepherding a remote mining community in Utah, an army chaplain bringing healing to wounded soldiers, sisters offering charity and mercy in a poor African-American community in the Mississippi Delta, a dedicated principal of a small mission school in New Mexico and the son of a migrant worker who now pastors a migrant-worker parish in California.

The group makes up the eight finalists for the 2017-2018 Lumen Christi Award, the highest honor bestowed by Catholic Extension, the Chicago-based national Catholic organization that builds churches and the Church in America’s poorest places.

These exemplary and faith-filled leaders are building up and strengthening Catholic faith communities around the country, embodying God’s love to the poor and transforming their communities.

“Our Lumen Christi finalists have answered Pope Francis’ call to all Catholics to be ‘missionary disciples’ and are proclaiming and living the Gospel in America’s ‘peripheries,’” said Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension. “They are an example to all of us.”

Following are glimpses into each of their stories:

  • The Missionary Carmelites of St. Teresa (Diocese of Beaumont, Texas) have been ministering to Latinos in three parishes in southeast Texas for the past 12 years. The four Mexican sisters develop lay leaders, hold retreats, provide religious education and reach out to the rapidly growing Hispanic Catholic population. They said, “Every day we respond to what the Lord is asking us in favor of His people.”
  • Franciscan Father Ponchie Vasquez (Diocese of Tucson, Arizona) serves as pastor of the San Solano Missions with the Tohono O’odham Nation at the U.S.-Mexico border west of Tucson. Living on a vast stretch of desert the size of Connecticut, the Tohono O’odham (“desert people”) come together in 40 churches served by the missions. “Mission work, service and ministry flow from the reality of how much God loves us,” said Father Vasquez. “When we are loved, we love.”
  • Sister Therese Maria Touma (Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn) belongs to the Servants of Christ the Light, a new religious order in the Maronite eparchy (“eparchy” is the Eastern Catholic term for a diocese). Based in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Sister Touma serves young Maronite Catholics (Middle Eastern Christians) in youth and young adult ministry. “Youth ministry is a constant giving and receiving,” she said. “As I am being emptied, the Lord is refilling me daily with joy and new energy to serve through each encounter.”
  • Rubén and Rosario Cano and the Hispanic Lay Ecclesial Ministers of Utah (Diocese of Salt Lake City) have been serving the rapidly growing Latino Catholic communities that make up 70 percent of the state’s Catholics. The Canos are lay pastoral ministers at San Rafael Mission Church in the remote mining community of Huntington, Utah. They lead religious education and community outreach at their church and travel throughout Utah to minister with Hispanics. Rosario Cano often says, “Do for others even though you do not know to whom you do it. In the end, you do it for the Lord.”
  • Father John O’Grady (Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA) is an army chaplain at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, where he provides pastoral ministry to active duty military and their families. He accompanies and has brought the gift of healing to the spiritually, physically and mentally wounded. "Many of the soldiers come here with horrific multiple injuries and require months and sometimes years of rehab and therapy,” said Father O’Grady. “Keep us in your prayers.”
  • The St. Gabriel of Mercy Center (Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi) in Mound Bayou in the Mississippi Delta, the poorest region in the poorest state, is led by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. The sisters partner with local organizations to provide services such as the St. Gabriel Closet, parenting and GED classes, a computer learning lab, senior services and summer youth programs. Said Franciscan Sister Monica Mary DeQuardo, “In Mound Bayou, there are many who stand on the margins of life, whether by choice or by chance. That is who we help.”
  • Antonio Trujillo (Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico) has revitalized the small St. Joseph Mission School in San Fidel, New Mexico, which serves mostly Native American students. Trujillo saved the school from the brink of closure. By refocusing on its true mission to be a beacon of hope and faith, he found the momentum to hire dedicated teachers and increase enrollment. Trujillo said, “It is a humbling experience to be with the poor and brokenhearted and most importantly, to discover Jesus in each person.”
  • Father Enrique Herrera (Diocese of Monterey, California) is the son of a migrant farmworker who traveled regularly from Mexico to work in Salinas Valley in California. Today he is the pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Greenfield in Salinas Valley, a parish comprised mainly of immigrants, many from Oaxaca, Mexico. Father Herrera gives special attention to guiding young people not only through faith formation but also through soccer and basketball leagues. He said, “I just want to serve the people of God, opening the door of the Catholic Church to them.”

Read more about this year’s Lumen Christi Award finalists here.

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About Catholic Extension:  Catholic Extension builds churches and the Church in America’s poorest place. Since its founding in 1905, Catholic Extension has distributed more than $1.2 billion in today’s dollars to dioceses and parishes that cannot support themselves. Catholic Extension is providing funding and resources for church buildings, leaders and ministries in order to build up and strengthen Catholic faith communities and unleash the transformative power of faith. For more information visit; follow us on Facebook at or twitter at @CathExtension.


Lisa Gunggoll (National Media)
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