By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published September 2, 2022
ATLANTA—Several church leaders, including two deacons from the Archdiocese of Atlanta, joined Catholic Extension for a mission immersion program traveling to the dioceses of Puerto Rico.
From the Atlanta Archdiocese, Deacon Bill Hampton from St. Matthew Church in Tyrone and Deacon Peter Swan from St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, joined the trip June 14-16.
Since its founding in 1905, Catholic Extension has provided funding and resources to dioceses throughout the United States. The organization supports poor and often isolated Catholic communities through various means, such as building and repairing church facilities, offering education for men and women religious and helping campus and outreach ministries.
In 2018, Catholic Extension launched the mission immersion program for pastors, which allows them to experience the church in poor areas of the country. This program, funded through the Lilly Endowment Inc., aims to broaden church leaders’ horizons through learning experiences of the church’s missionary activities.
“These inspiring pilgrimages have a purpose, which is to call attention to the marginalized in our country and ask the larger Catholic Church in America to join us in solidarity with those who have the greatest need,” said Joseph Boland, vice president of mission for Catholic Extension.
“Catholic Extension brings pastoral leaders to Puerto Rico to witness the faithfulness and resiliency of the Puerto Rican people in spite of their many economic challenges,” he said.
Resiliency after devastation
Puerto Rico has six dioceses serving more than 2 million people. The capital, San Juan, is home to the oldest Catholic presence in the Western Hemisphere.
On the first day of the trip, pilgrims toured the historic Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista, the oldest church under the American flag. They later visited the Dominican Sisters of Fatima in their new home in Guanica, Puerto Rico.
Afterward, the pilgrims visited Immaculate Conception Church in Guayanilla, which was destroyed by earthquakes in January 2020 followed by continuous aftershocks. Immaculate Conception is part of Catholic Extension’s recovery program.
Since 1910, Catholic Extension has built or repaired more than 1,300 churches across the island. In 2017, when Hurricane Maria devasted Catholic communities in Puerto Rico, Catholic Extension helped to rebuild or repair many of the estimated 1,000 churches that were damaged. The island continues to recover from natural disasters in recent years.
“They’ve suffered a lot,” said Deacon Swan of the Puerto Ricans he met. “Yet their faith didn’t vanish. With all the earthquakes and all the hurricanes they’ve had, they’re still going strong.”
Deacon Swan was struck by the faith of the people who were determined to rebuild the parishes in their community devastated by natural disasters.
“In our parish, we have a lot of Puerto Rican families,” said Deacon Swan. “I am encouraging people here to be kind and gentle with our Puerto Rican parishioners. They have gone through a lot.”
When the 2017 hurricane hit, the International Catholic Stewardship Council conference was being held in Atlanta. Deacon Hampton remembered that some conference attendees from Puerto Rico were unable to go home after the conference.
A parish group from St. Matthew brought the conference attendees to Peachtree City to stay for a while and gave them needed items to take back to the island. When the deacon went on the mission immersion trip in June, he ran into some of the people his parish helped five years ago.
“I was able to go to Puerto Rico and run into these guys again, which was very nice,” said Deacon Hampton.
Additional visits during the mission immersion trip included Mass celebrations, a kids’ camp with the Dominican sisters in Guanica and a children’s home, Hogar Infantil Santa Teresita del Niño.
“In our work in the poorest regions of the country, we often find that the faith communities who are materially poor are also extremely rich in faith, spirit, and pastoral creativity and the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico is no exception,” said Boland.
With the help of Haggerty Consulting, Catholic Extension’s recovery program has collected an estimated $400 million that will be reimbursable for repairs to Puerto Rican Catholic churches and schools through FEMA funding. Additionally, it has put dioceses in a position to receive “Section 404” hazard mitigation funding, which would provide additional resources to build more resilient church structures, better equipped to shelter vulnerable populations and withstand future hurricanes.
With all the negative news in the world, learning about the work of Catholic Extension was a faith boost for Deacon Hampton.
The deacon hopes people will learn more about Catholic Extension and support its work to build up America’s poorest faith communities.
“There are people here that care about our brothers and sisters wherever they may be,” he said.
For more information and to donate to Catholic Extension, visit catholicextension.org.