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How principals and Partnership Schools are keeping historic inner-city Catholic schools alive 

Archbishop Lyke students in the school library in 2022. / Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools

CNA Staff, Jun 23, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

When historic Catholic schools started closing across the nation, an organization that manages Catholic schools in low-income communities stepped in.

With four schools in Cleveland and seven in New York City, Partnership Schools is helping to manage, support, and fund schools in need while providing scholarships for students to be able to attend their local Catholic schools. 

Initially launched as a fundraising organization, Partnership Schools shifted to a management and operations organization in 2013 to better amplify its impact, making it academically, operationally, and financially responsible for each school it partners with while the schools remain owned by their local dioceses. The group provides curricula, offers professional development for teachers, fundraises, and manages things such as payroll.  

The Partnership Schools model enables dioceses to retain ownership of the schools while the organization takes full responsibility for them.

St. Thomas Aquinas students on the playground in Cleveland in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools
St. Thomas Aquinas students on the playground in Cleveland in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools

St. Thomas Aquinas: a 125-year legacy 

When a Catholic school that had been in operation more than 100 years needed help staying open, it decided to work with Partnership Schools. But first, it had to get the pope’s permission. 

St. Thomas Aquinas School in Cleveland started by serving Irish and German immigrants in 1899. Scheduled to close in 2020, the school was able to stay open by working with Partnership Schools. Now, nearly 125 years since its founding, St. Thomas is thriving and serves students in the local community. 

“For about the last 60 years or so, we have been serving a predominantly Black community, and that still is the case now,” principal Rachael Dengler told CNA in a Zoom interview. “We have 250 students currently enrolled. One hundred percent of them are Black. Actually, zero percent of them are Catholic, but many come from a strong Christian faith and live in the neighborhood, so this is a community school to them.”

Though no Catholic students attend St. Thomas Aquinas, the school fosters community, teaches the faith, and finds commonalities with its largely Protestant students and families.

“When our beliefs and our values are so aligned, it’s not difficult to find a common ground in Christ,” Dengler explained.

“We are surrounded by Cleveland public schools, and so [parents] certainly have their options that aren’t Catholic,” she said. “But I think when parents see an education that’s driven in values and driven in beliefs that are aligned with how they were raised themselves or how they want their children to be raised, I think it really does become a pretty simple decision.”

Unlike most parochial Catholic schools, St. Thomas is no longer affiliated with a local parish and is now under the local bishop. Because he was reassigned before he could officially approve of St. Thomas joining Partnership Schools, then-Bishop Nelson Perez (now archbishop of Philadelphia) needed Pope Francis’ permission to get the program running.

“The pope ended up approving of this collaboration, which was a really different turn,” Dengler recalled. “Then, two weeks later, every school in the nation shut down for COVID, and that was in the midst of becoming a Partnership school. That was also the same year I was hired to be the principal.”

Despite the added challenges, the school’s enrollment increased by about 40% in the last four years since St. Thomas first partnered with Partnership Schools in 2020. 

“We wouldn’t be celebrating our 125th year if it weren’t for being a part of the network,” she explained. 

Dengler said she’s worked with students whose grandparents and parents have attended the school. 

“It’s a beautiful thing to feel like you’re a part of a family in a community that’s been there far longer than you have and will certainly outlast any individual’s time there,” she said. 

Rachael Denglar at St. Thomas Aquinas in Cleveland in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools
Rachael Denglar at St. Thomas Aquinas in Cleveland in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools

Though the school has changed over the generations, it has maintained its Catholic identity, especially by keeping its chapel accessible, Dengler explained.

“Because there is no parish, because there are challenges to the creation of community in the neighborhood, it is the school that is intentionally emotionally creating a sense of community,” she said.

“[Families] may not be Catholic, but they love being a part of a Catholic school, and they love and are proud of sharing where they go to school,” Dengler said. “And I think it’s because of the values that we uphold and the love that we have for them, regardless of whatever faith that they practice.”

St. Athanasius students at a play area at St. Athanasius in the South Bronx, New York City, in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools
St. Athanasius students at a play area at St. Athanasius in the South Bronx, New York City, in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools

111 years in the Bronx

After 11 years of managing the seven New York Catholic schools in the Partnership Schools organization, the Archdiocese of New York will resume management of them, a spokeswoman for Partnership Schools told CNA on Tuesday.   

Beth Blaufuss, Partnership School vice president for strategic initiatives, said that though they are sad to say goodbye to the schools, they were only ever “stewards.”

St. Athanasius School in the South Bronx is one of the schools that Partnership Schools has helped preserve for the past 11 years. It opened in 1913 and has centered the local community for 111 years, including when it was suffering from rampant arson by landlords in the 1970s.

Jessica Aybar, current principal of St. Athanasius in the South Bronx, said community has been a key part of the school both now and in the troubled past.

“At that time, the school was obviously still standing but serving a population that was really traumatized,” she explained. “It was a very normal occurrence for kids to come to school in their pajamas because their apartment building burned down the night before.”

“At the height of the Bronx’s burning era, the school went from having 16 classrooms to having nine,” she continued. “So in terms of enrollment, it was pretty much demolished.”

Jessica Aybar, principal of St. Athanasius in the South Bronx, New York City, in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools
Jessica Aybar, principal of St. Athanasius in the South Bronx, New York City, in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools

Decades later, the school reached 280 students in 2012. Then, while under Partnership Schools, St. Athanasius nearly doubled, reaching 440 students. 

“There is a ton of growth in terms of enrollment. I would say a rebirth, a renaissance, of Catholic schools in our neighborhood due to the Partnership support,” Aybar explained.

“A lot of times, families in our neighborhood think they can’t afford a quality Catholic school to attend,” she continued. “Partnership Schools has done so much to change the narrative and to make Catholic education accessible to as many students as possible.”

St. Athanasius is a happy place, and that can be seen in its 100% teacher retention rate this year, Aybar noted. She said there’s a variety of veteran, beginners, and in-the-middle teachers who are “a huge source of stability and community within the school.”

“All of those teachers, together, combined make a really diverse staff that has different strengths, different areas of growth,” she said. “That’s one of the things that I’m really proud of. I think there’s a reason that people stick around, and part of it is because of how much they love the community and how respected that they feel within the community.”

Most people find the school through word of mouth, not through the internet or other sources — a testament, Aybar said, to how special the community is.

A St. Athanasius elementary school student works on a craft in class in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools
A St. Athanasius elementary school student works on a craft in class in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools

Moving forward: NY management returns to the archdiocese 

After an 11-year contract with the New York Archdiocese, Partnership Schools announced on June 18 that the archdiocese will resume management of those Catholic schools.

In a statement to CNA, Partnership Schools said it is celebrating successes of the past decade including a record of $7.7 million in scholarships earned by this year’s New York Partnership graduates alone and a 28% increase in New York schools enrollment since the COVID pandemic began in 2020, as well as doubling achievement scores. 

“When we took on the six original schools that we began to serve, academic performance was unacceptably low,” Blaufuss explained. “For example, 17% of the students met the proficiency standards for the state of New York in math.”

“Flash forward 11 years, we’ve not only increased the number of students who are achieving proficiency — in fact, last year … the percent of partnership eighth graders and graduates scoring proficient on the state test in math was higher than the average for the city as a whole.”

For the future, the network plans to expand its work in Cleveland and beyond. 

An elementary student raises his hand in class at St. Francis School in Cleveland in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools
An elementary student raises his hand in class at St. Francis School in Cleveland in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools

“Impact has grown in this diocese, and we look forward to continuing our partnership to benefit the increasing number of students and families served by our Catholic schools in the heart of the city,” Frank O’Linn, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Cleveland and a Partnership Schools trustee, said this week in a press release shared with CNA. 

Partnership Schools’ current agreement with the diocese will run through 2028 while it investigates options in other dioceses, particularly those with school choice funding already in place, according to the release.

Elementary students in class at Metro Catholic School, another Partnership School in Cleveland, in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools
Elementary students in class at Metro Catholic School, another Partnership School in Cleveland, in 2022. Credit: Leila Sutton/Partnership Schools

“Catholic schools enable students in low-income communities to become excellent students and caring citizens,” the chair of Partnership Schools’ board of trustees, Russ Carson, said in the release. 

March for Life president Mancini urges advocates for unborn to continue fight

Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, attends the 50th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2023. / Credit: Katie Yoder/CNA

Washington D.C., Jun 22, 2024 / 09:00 am (CNA).

March for Life President Jeanne Mancini opened the Celebrate Life Conference on Friday with an impassioned speech calling for pro-life advocates to embrace a new season of fighting for the unborn.

At the event held at the Westin Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., Mancini shared her recollection of the moment she first discovered that Roe v. Wade had been overturned.

“I was interviewing on CBS the moment the decision came down, and I’ll never forget how my interviewer was not pro-life,” she shared as the crowd laughed. “She was shocked as I was bustling and so happy, thinking of all of the marchers over the years, the collective millions that have made this moment possible.”

Mancini then became choked up as she recalled the second the news truly sunk in later that same day, stating: “I don’t think in my lifetime I thought Roe would be overturned, and to consider that it was overturned in our lifetime is just unbelievable. It is so easy to forget what a massive victory that was.”

Mancini acknowledged on the eve of the second anniversary of the overturning of Roe v. Wade that the pro-life movement has since faced some setbacks amid a climate of “cultural confusion.”

Calling the enshrinement of abortion “rights” in Michigan and Ohio “tragic,” Mancini urged those attending to keep up the fight for the unborn.

“While we have had some losses, it is not an option for us to abandon this fight. It is absolutely essential for pro-life leaders, for lawmakers and citizens, to educate their neighbors on the harms of these ballot initiatives and what they do,” Mancini continued. “We are in the single-most significant human rights battle of our time, and we’ve got to dig in.”

The March for Life organization has implemented state capital marches in 17 different states since 2019.

Sharing her experience of attending a Mass at the 2023 Michigan March for Life, Mancini repeated the words that Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, shared in his homily: “On a day like today, you want to fight like hell. But you have to fight like heaven… we are called to fight with love at the heart of [the movement].”

She called on audience members to “pray and ask God for what he wants from you in this new season” and to “embrace your given pro-life mission.”

Additionally, Mancini cited a 2023 Charlotte Lozier study that found among women who had had abortions, 60% would have preferred to give birth if they had received either more emotional or financial support.

“I feel like this season is about addressing that 60%,” Mancini shared before emphasizing the importance of promoting pregnancy care centers and maternity homes throughout the country.

In closing, Mancini called on pro-life advocates to “persevere, persevere, persevere.” 

“Dig your heels in as change takes time. We are in this for the long game, so persevere. You were made for such a time as this; now get out there and keep doing it,” she urged.

The Celebrate Life Conference is sponsored by the Pro-Life Women’s Conference, the National Sidewalk Advocacy Center, and Students for Life among other organizations. The event will continue through the weekend with various other keynote speeches, breakout sessions, and the Celebrate Life Rally at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, June 22.

Mother Angelica’s shrine fills to capacity as National Eucharistic Pilgrimage passes through

Hundreds of faithful filled the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, site of Mother Angelica's tomb, beyond capacity as the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage St. Juan Diego Route passed through on June 20, 2024. / Credit: EWTN

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jun 22, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

“I live because of the Eucharist,” Mother Angelica once said.

The foundress of EWTN and member of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, Mother Angelica made no secret of her love and devotion to the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

On Thursday, more than eight years after her death, the legacy of Mother Angelica’s Eucharistic love was on full display as pilgrims along the St. Juan Diego Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage stopped at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, which she founded and where she is buried.

The shrine was filled beyond capacity by hundreds of religious and lay faithful of all ages, including many families.

Members of the St. Juan Diego Route of National Eucharistic Pilgrimage team smile for a photo during a stop at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, on June 20, 2024. Credit: EWTN
Members of the St. Juan Diego Route of National Eucharistic Pilgrimage team smile for a photo during a stop at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, on June 20, 2024. Credit: EWTN

Those attending participated in a Eucharistic procession despite temperatures in the 90s. The procession began at the shrine’s Marian grotto and ended at the main church, where there was a healing service that included a reflection by Father John Eckert of the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, on the role of shame in the Christian life.

Eckert said that shame serves as a guardrail helping Christians to differentiate good from evil and stay on the right path. This guardrail, however, can become distorted when Christians fall short and the devil twists shame, telling us: “How dare you miss this guardrail!” in attempts to further separate them from God.

But God comes to remind us not to believe the devil’s lies but to release us from those lies, Eckert said.

Built in 1999 and on 400 acres of land, the shrine serves as the chapel for the cloistered Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, which houses the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration.

The faithful adore Christ in the Eucharist at the Marian grotto at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, at a stop on the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage on June 20, 2024. Credit: EWTN
The faithful adore Christ in the Eucharist at the Marian grotto at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, at a stop on the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage on June 20, 2024. Credit: EWTN

The shrine, renowned for its tranquil beauty and as the resting place of Mother Angelica, attracts pilgrims from around the globe. Located in northern Alabama, the shrine marked the halfway point for the Juan Diego Route and served as a place of much-needed respite, with the pilgrims spending several days in private prayer and retreat before Thursday’s event.

The eight Juan Diego “Perpetual Pilgrims” — five young men and women, two seminarians, and a religious brother — began their journey at the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas, on May 19. Since then, they have trekked over 1,000 miles, passing through four states and 12 dioceses.

The Juan Diego pilgrims will finish their journey on July 16 in Indianapolis, where they will join pilgrims from the three other routes and thousands of faithful for the 10th National Eucharistic Congress.

UPDATE: Tennessee priest indicted on additional sex crime charges

Father Juan Carlos Garcia-Mendoza is being held in jail in Williamson County, Tennessee, on $2 million bond, the police said. He had previously served at St. Philip Catholic Church in the town of Franklin. / Credit: Courtesy of the Franklin Police Department

CNA Staff, Jun 21, 2024 / 15:55 pm (CNA).

A priest in Tennessee already facing multiple sexual abuse charges has been served with two additional battery charges this month, police have revealed. 

A grand jury earlier this month returned a superseding indictment against Father Juan Carlos Garcia-Mendoza, charging him with two additional counts of sexual battery, according to a press release from the Franklin, Tennessee, Police Department. 

In February, Garcia was indicted on eight other charges, including continuous abuse of a child, aggravated sexual battery, four counts of sexual battery by an authority figure, and two counts of sexual battery.

The priest is being held in jail in Williamson County, Tennessee, on $2 million bond, the police said. He had previously served at St. Philip Catholic Church in the town of Franklin.

The Diocese of Nashville had said in a press release in January that it first learned of accusations against Garcia in November 2023 when “a teen in the parish had made a report of improper touching” involving the priest. 

The diocese made a report to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services; it also contracted with a former FBI agent to oversee the diocesan investigation into the claims.

A spokesman for the diocese told CNA on Friday that Garcia had been removed from active ministry in November after the first report was made regarding the priest. 

Earlier reports had suggested the diocese delayed for several weeks in removing the priest from active ministry; the spokesman denied those reports. 

“The diocese has kept the Holy See informed throughout this matter and the canonical process is ongoing separate from the criminal proceedings,” the spokesman told CNA.

Garcia was ordained in 2020 and served at several parishes in the Nashville Diocese before his indictment. 

This story was updated on Friday, June 21, at 4:30 p.m. with additional comments from the Nashville diocesan spokesman.

EWTN earns multiple accolades at 2024 Gabriel Awards

The first season of the EWTN series “James the Less” received the Best Video award at the 2024 Gabriel Awards presentation on June 20, 2024, in Atlanta. / Credit: Ken Oliver-Méndez/CNA

Atlanta, Ga., Jun 21, 2024 / 14:55 pm (CNA).

The 58th annual Gabriel Awards saw EWTN, the world’s largest Catholic media organization, win five awards in multiple categories in recognition of “outstanding artistic achievement in a television or radio program or series that entertains and enriches with a true vision of humanity and true vision of life.”

Sponsored by the Catholic Media Association, this year’s awards took place on June 20 within the context of the association’s annual conference in Atlanta. EWTN News President and COO Montse Alvarado and National Catholic Register Editor-in-Chief Shannon Mullen accepted the awards for Best Feature Film, Best Video, Best Television Special Event Coverage, Best Single News Story, and Best Short Documentary on behalf of their colleagues.

Winning first place for Best Single News Story, “EWTN News in Depth” anchor Catherine Hadro took the top spot for her story on the life of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, foundress of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, whose body was exhumed in May 2023 in an unexpected state of preservation.

EWTN News in Depth anchor Catherine Hadro took the top spot for her story on the life of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, foundress of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles. Credit: Ken Oliver-Méndez/CNA
EWTN News in Depth anchor Catherine Hadro took the top spot for her story on the life of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, foundress of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles. Credit: Ken Oliver-Méndez/CNA

Winning along with Hadro for the report were EWTN News editor Andrew Spangenberg and videographer Craig Campbell.

Taking top honors for Best Television Special Event Coverage was EWTN’s 2023 World Youth Day coverage, led by EWTN News correspondent Colm Flynn along with Eleonora Vescovini and Father Mark Mary, MFVA. EWTN Vice President of Programming and Production Peter Gagnon was also among the network’s award winners for his role as executive producer of the network’s coverage of the event.

Meanwhile, Season 1 of EWTN’s innovative series “James the Less” received the prestigious Best Video award. EWTN Director of Studio Operations Stephen Beaumont worked with EWTN producers Michael Masny and Greg Hendrick to develop the scripts for the five-part romantic comedy.

Speaking of the series, whose second season is currently in production, Beaumont told CNA: “The narratives provide an opportunity to attract people who might not otherwise watch Catholic programs. Our hope is that Catholics and non-Catholics alike will find the show entertaining and that atheists will gain insight into what Catholics believe.”

The global Catholic network, the parent company of CNA, also took first place in the feature film category for “Faith of Our Fathers,” a riveting original film about a Catholic priest defending the faith against the 19th-century English penal laws and the determination of the Irish community to protect him in the face of unrelenting persecution. EWTN President Doug Keck in his capacity as executive producer of the film received the award, along with fellow executive producer Aidan Gallagher, director Campbell Miller, and producer John Elson.

Finally, the network’s short documentary “Alive in Christ — The Eucharistic Martyrs” also took top spot in its category. The documentary brings to life the account of the first Christians and their courageous struggle to live their faith in the midst of persecution. Once again, Keck received the award in his capacity as the documentary’s executive producer, along with fellow executive producers Elson and David Sipoš, who was also the director.

In addition, EWTN News anchor Hadro also won the Best Podcast — Single Episode award for her role as co-host and producer of the “Purposeful Lab” podcast “Is Extraterrestrial Life Compatible with Christianity?” produced by the Magis Center and co-host Dr. Daniel Kuebler.

The Catholic Media Association notes that “the Gabriel Awards have been a beacon of inspiration since their inception in 1965, encouraging media professionals to create works that serve, enrich, challenge, and uplift audiences.”

Commenting on the wins for the network, EWTN Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board Michael Warsaw said “this year’s Gabriel Awards are particularly meaningful to EWTN as our submissions reflected the broad range of productions the team is committed to bringing our audience— from an online digital series aimed at young audiences to the deeply meaningful story of determination of our Irish forefathers, to our wall-to-wall coverage of World Youth Day.”

Warsaw added: “We’re grateful to the Catholic Media Association board and the award selection committee for their recognition and support of the team’s hard work and are honored to stand alongside the other nominees and winners that seek to share the truth of our faith with the world through media.” 

For her part, EWTN News President and COO Alvarado observed that “the recognition of the ‘EWTN News In Depth’ team’s coverage of the life of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster is especially significant as Catherine Hadro takes on the role of host of the program this week. We’re all grateful for the recognition from our peers in the Catholic media space and applaud the other nominees and winners for their submissions.”

Democrats move to repeal federal law that forbids abortion materials in U.S. mail

U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. / Credit: Shutterstock

CNA Newsroom, Jun 21, 2024 / 11:30 am (CNA).

Democrats worried that a new Trump administration may use a 150-year-old federal law to stop abortion pills from being sent through the mail have announced an attempt to repeal it.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, said in a Thursday press release on her website that she had introduced a bill to repeal the Comstock Act, a law she claimed “Republicans and anti-choice extremists want to misuse to ban abortion nationwide.”

Passed in 1873, the Comstock Act bans in part the usage of the U.S. Postal Service to send any materials that can facilitate or cause abortions.

The portions of the Comstock Act banning the mailing of abortion-causing items have not been enforced for decades, at least since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared a right to abortion under the federal constitution in Roe v. Wade.

Yet the question came up again after the court overturned Roe in June 2022 and declared that there is no federal constitutional right to abortion, sending abortion law back to legislatures and state referendums.

Smith in her announcement on Thursday said the Comstock rule is “a 150-year-old zombie law,” one that’s “long been relegated to the dustbin of history.”

“Now that Trump has overturned Roe, a future Republican administration could try to misapply this 150-year-old Comstock law to deny American women their rights, even in states where abortion rights are protected by state law,” she alleged. 

The senator said it was “too dangerous to leave this law on the books.” Multiple other Democrats signaled their support for the bill on Thursday. 

The federal Food and Drug Administration began allowing abortion pills to be sent through the mail on a temporary basis in April 2021, not long after President Joe Biden took office. The agency made the approval permanent in December 2021.

The Biden Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said in December 2022 that mailing abortion pills does not violate federal law “where the sender lacks the intent that the recipient of the drugs will use them unlawfully.”

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, decried attempts to repeal the Comstock Act’s references to abortion-causing items.

“It’s quite astounding. Democrats in Congress must wake up every day wondering what else they can do to make it easier to end the lives of unborn children,” Tobias told CNA by text.

“These are the same people trying to shut down pregnancy centers, trying to block pregnancy centers from online search engines, and vilifying the abortion pill reversal process,” Tobias said. “This latest effort is one more attempt not to help women and babies but instead an effort to make it easier to kill preborn babies.”

“It’s sad that the Democratic Party has become the party that pushes death for the most innocent and vulnerable among us.”

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, meanwhile, said the Comstock Act repeal isn’t likely to gain traction in Congress this year, given that Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives and Democrats control the Senate, both by a narrow majority.

“The bill is unlikely to go anywhere given the makeup of the House and Senate,” a spokesman for the organization told CNA by email.

“Instead of fearmongering about how a law may be applied, Democrats should be ensuring that the FDA is actually protecting women’s health with proper safety standards for abortion drugs.”

Catholic abbey and Baptist university exchange land ‘to build up the kingdom’

In exchange for the transfer of the 74-acre Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU) Green Campus — formerly St. Gregory’s University — to St. Gregory’s Abbey, OBU will receive two parcels of land for future development totaling 134 acres in Shawnee, just east of Oklahoma City. The abbey and the university announced the news on June 7, 2024.  / Courtesy: St. Gregory’s Abbey

CNA Staff, Jun 21, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

In a unique sign of ecumenicism, a Catholic abbey and a Baptist university are exchanging property so the abbey can receive historically significant land that once was home to the abbey’s university.

In exchange for the transfer of the 74-acre Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU) Green Campus — formerly St. Gregory’s University — to St. Gregory’s Abbey, OBU will receive two parcels of land for future development totaling 134 acres in Shawnee, just east of Oklahoma City. The abbey and the university announced the news on June 7.

The abbey shared the announcement in a press release on June 7, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, stating that the “entirety” of the former campus of St. Gregory University “once again is dedicated to the life and ministries of the monks of St. Gregory’s Abbey!”

The announcement also coincides with the 147th anniversary of “the beginning of the liturgical life of our community.”

Founded in 1875, St. Gregory’s University first began as a high school, then a college in the 1990s, and finally a university in the early 2000s. But when it closed in 2017 after the university filed for bankruptcy, it came into the ownership of OBU.

“Over the last two years, we have been in quiet conversations with the leadership of Oklahoma Baptist University as to how we might work together for the betterment of our complementary missions,” the statement read.

“Through these conversations, we discerned a path by which the abbey could exchange part of our undeveloped pastureland for the grounds and facilities that for some 120 years had served the legacy and ministries of our monastic community,” it read.

“We prayerfully considered both the opportunities and the risks that such an exchange could present and now are thrilled that the exchange has taken place,” the announcement continued. 

“The monastic community is thrilled that our historic grounds and facilities once again are available for the benefit of our mission and ministries,” Abbot Lawrence Stasyszen said in a June 7 press release.

“We were pleased that these facilities dedicated to the kingdom of God were entrusted to our brothers and sisters in Christ at OBU after the closure of St. Gregory’s University,” he noted. “Now they come back to the abbey but will continue to be accessible to the needs of OBU.” 

The abbot noted that this reflects the brotherly bond beyond between the two groups. 

“As we read in Proverbs 17:17, the bonds of Christian brothers are strengthened in times of adversity,” Stasyszen continued. “Whether it be through the closure of St. Gregory’s University or the ongoing aftermath of the 2023 tornado, our relationship has grown stronger in challenging times for the good of our institutions and of the broader community.” 

Heath Thomas, president of OBU, said in the release that the lands received from the abbey will help their community “for years to come.” 

“While we are honored to have stewarded this gift for the past several years, we are thrilled that the historic heritage of the Green Campus will go back to the abbey. It is fitting and right,” he noted. 

“Our trustees voted unanimously for this land exchange and we are both excited and hopeful as we look towards the future opportunities that will result for OBU,” said Eric Costanzo, chair of the OBU board of trustees.

“We are grateful to President Thomas and the leadership of OBU for working with us in such a positive way so that the complementary missions of OBU and the abbey can continue to flourish and be of benefit to our many constituents,” the abbot continued.

“We look forward to continuing our positive relationship with OBU to build up the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ Our Lord,” he noted. 

“Our work now begins in earnest as we seek to restore these historic grounds and facilities to their former splendor and even improve them to welcome many others to share in our life and service to the kingdom of God!” the abbey press release concluded.

National Eucharistic Pilgrimage marches through extreme heat to bring Jesus to the people

Cows in Nebraska watch as the Eucharistic Jesus passes by. / Credit: Jeffrey Bruno

CNA Staff, Jun 20, 2024 / 16:45 pm (CNA).

Amid a brutal heat wave in the Midwest and Northeast this week, the pilgrims on each of the four legs of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage have all passed what is roughly the halfway point on their journeys to Indianapolis. 

The four pilgrimage groups — currently in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Nebraska — will converge in Indianapolis on July 16 in time for the National Eucharistic Congress from July 17–21. A cohort of 30 young men and women have committed to walking the entirety of the routes, encouraging people to join along the way as they process with the Eucharistic Jesus. The processions have attracted thousands of participants in many areas. 

“We have definitely spent a lot of this week in the heat, in the mid-90s,” said Marina Frattaroli, one of the pilgrims on the eastern Seton Route, at a Wednesday press conference. Much of the eastern U.S. is baking in unseasonably warm spring weather, with Pittsburgh under an excessive heat warning until Saturday evening. 

“On Monday, I believe that we walked 15, 16 miles in the mid-90s. And so the team definitely is feeling the heat wave … it’s another opportunity to bring out those big prayer intentions, as we unite ourselves in Christ,” she said.

The Eucharist makes its way through Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Credit: Juliana Lamb
The Eucharist makes its way through Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Credit: Juliana Lamb

Frattaroli mentioned that despite the heat, the pilgrims have been able to act as “ambassadors” several times and explain the purpose of the processions to non-Catholic onlookers. 

“There has always been a crowd with us. And even Monday, over 15 miles … there were well over 100 people, even at the smallest, and probably closer to 200 in the crowd at all times. So people are coming out, and people are even enduring the hard days together,” she said. 

Marian Route pilgrim Matthew Heidenreich told about a boat procession the group took on Shawano Lake in Wisconsin and a walk to nearby Camp Tekakwitha, where a large number of kids at the summer camp greeted the pilgrims. On Sunday, the group visited the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion near Green Bay, the site of the only approved Marian apparition in the United States. 

The National Eucharistic Pilgrimage continues from the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion near Green Bay, Wisconsin, the site of the only approved Marian apparition in the United States. Credit: Emma Follett
The National Eucharistic Pilgrimage continues from the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion near Green Bay, Wisconsin, the site of the only approved Marian apparition in the United States. Credit: Emma Follett

Heidenreich said it has been a blessing to engage in service projects for the poor during the pilgrimage as well. The Marian group will soon reach Milwaukee, where dozens of events are planned. 

As told by Serra Route pilgrim Jaella Mac Au, a procession at a lake in Nebraska included an unexpected surprise — one of the vans that occasionally carries the Eucharist and the pilgrims got stuck in some sand. 

“We were just like, oh, my gosh, like, what are we gonna do, Lord? ... We asked for the prayers of St. Anthony, and praise God, our van got out. And it was just such a beautiful team bonding moment where we were digging out the van and pushing together, and it was just so beautiful to also include Our Lord in it.”

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln carries the Eucharist through Nebraska. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln carries the Eucharist through Nebraska. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno

On the southern Juan Diego Route, which began in Texas, the pilgrims endured extreme heat near the start of the route but have found respite at a retreat the last few days at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama.  

As in past weeks, the pilgrims praised the hospitality of the people they encountered on the route and said they have been well-fed with local food at almost every stage. 

Mac Au said her favorite food so far has been tacos and other Hispanic food provided to them when they went through Sacramento, while Frattaroli praised the authentic Italian food they were given while passing through Brooklyn. 

Catholics throughout the U.S. are encouraged to register to join the pilgrims in walking short sections of the pilgrimages and joining in numerous other special events put on by their local dioceses. To read ongoing coverage about the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage and National Eucharistic Congress, visit the National Catholic Register.

San Diego Catholic Charities struggles with security risks after accusation of ‘smuggling’

Asylum seekers wait in line to be processed by the Border Patrol at a makeshift camp near the U.S.-Mexico border east of Jacumba, San Diego County, California, Jan. 2, 2024. / Credit: GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images

CNA Staff, Jun 20, 2024 / 15:30 pm (CNA).

A California Catholic charity has been struggling for weeks to deal with ongoing security risks amid claims that the organization is illegally sheltering and trafficking migrants.

Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego CEO Vino Pajanor told CNA that the ongoing chaos, which includes protests and harassing messages, has been a shock even to workers who have served at the organization for decades.

“They have never seen something like this,” he said.

The difficulties began earlier this year after activist-journalist James O’Keefe reported on what he described as an “illegal immigrant compound” at a Ramada Suites in San Diego. In the video, O’Keefe suggests the facility is involved in the trafficking of illegal immigrants. 

At one point O’Keefe’s team identifies what it claims is a list of “people who run the facility,” which included workers listed with the San Diego Catholic Charities. O’Keefe also posted an organizational chart of the charity group on X.

The New York Times reported on June 2 that Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego began experiencing protests and harassing calls after O’Keefe’s allegations. Pajanor, meanwhile, told CNA this week that the organization is still dealing with those threats. 

“More of [O’Keefe’s] followers” have been demonstrating, he said, “thinking that we are harboring undocumented ‘illegal’ individuals, and that we are smuggling kids and trafficking kids.”

“Protesters have come to our buildings,” he said. “Over the weekend they protested in front of our migrant shelter, blocking our driveway for about an hour, until the local police came by.”

There is no truth, Pajanor said, to the suggestion that the charity is participating in a smuggling scheme. 

“None at all,” he said. “None at all.”

O’Keefe did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Spokeswoman for Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego Kimberly Ortiz told CNA that the charity has “a lease with the hotel and CCDSD does the day-to-day management of the shelter operations.” 

“The hotel management does the janitorial, upkeep, and maintenance of the hotel,” she said. 

‘Exactly what Jesus calls us to do’

For years, San Diego Catholic Charities has offered immigrant services in the Diocese of San Diego. The charity group’s main headquarters is fewer than two dozen miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. 

On its website Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego says it aspires to be “the premier nonprofit provider of immigration services in San Diego and Imperial Counties.” It offers immigrants help with applications and other services with the aim to “enable eligible immigrants to obtain legal immigrant or citizenship status.”

Pajanor said the organization began operating migrant shelters in April 2021 amid a surge of illegal immigration to the U.S. “We’ve always been open about what we’re doing,” he said. 

The organization shared material with CNA showing that it has assisted more than 245,000 individuals since the shelters opened — many from Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil. About 25% have been children.

“Every one of these individuals are processed by [the U.S. Border Patrol],” Pajanor said. “Every one of them has a notice to appear in a court of law. Once they get that notice, Border Patrol releases them to us.” 

“When they come to Catholic Charities, every one of them has a document,” he said. “They’re all documented individuals in the United States. Not a single one is undocumented.” 

“There’s nothing illegal about what Catholic Charities is doing,” he said. “What we are doing is a humanitarian service.”

The CEO said the group has been forced to deal with a logistical headache of security in the months since O’Keefe made his allegations. 

“It made us add more security,” he said, saying the process involves both “unnecessary costs and unnecessary fear for our team members and clients and guests coming to our location.”

“This has cost us unnecessary work and unnecessary expenses while we’re taking care of the people coming to ask us for help,” he said.

Pajanor said the security process is a “constant pain.”

“Every time that a sporadic group wants to protest, we have to add security,” he said. “Either we add security ahead of time or we add it afterwards until it dies down.”

Amid successive years of record illegal immigration, San Diego has lately been at the center of illegal border crossings. U.S. government data show that the city’s border enforcement has encountered more than 220,000 illegal immigrants fiscal year-to-date, seconded only by Tucson. 

Pajanor argued that the immigrant facilities run by the San Diego charity group are addressing both a humanitarian crisis and the local civic emergency of rising homeless populations. 

“We’re preventing them from being homeless in the streets,” he said. “If we’re not involved with Border Patrol to bring them to migrant shelters, those hundreds of individuals every day would end up on the streets of San Diego and add to the homeless population.”

The CEO expressed disappointment over the negative response to its migrant work. 

“Matthew 25 calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit prisoners,” he said. “That’s our faith and that’s our belief. And we are doing exactly what Jesus calls us to do.”

“We are here to serve the community,” he said. “Why are they targeting us?”

U.S. bishops issue plea for nonviolence ahead of elections

Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. / Credit: Matt Cashore/Notre Dame de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jun 20, 2024 / 15:00 pm (CNA).

A leading U.S. bishop issued a statement Wednesday urging Christians “and people of goodwill” to abstain from political violence and resolve differences through dialogue and the voting process.

In the statement titled “‘Pursue What Leads to Peace’: A Christian Response to Rising Threats of Political and Ideological Violence,” Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia warned that violent behavior is “seen by many as an acceptable means for carrying out political or ideological disputes.”

Gudziak, who serves as chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) committee on domestic justice and human development, wrote:

“We pray and urge all Christians and people of goodwill: Abstain from political violence of any kind! Instead, ‘pursue what leads to peace and building up one another’ (Rom 14:19) through dialogue, seeking justice.”

Describing the political climate today, Gudziak wrote that “political speech is often full of insults, fear, anger, and anxiety. Sadly, racism, religious discrimination, and xenophobia are on the rise. People in public office are receiving more death threats than ever before, some of which turn into physical attacks.”

The document references an Axios poll from earlier this year, which showed that 49% of Americans expect there will be violence in response to the results of future presidential elections.

He called on Christians to address others “with the God-given human dignity” of each person when engaging in political discussions.

“It is hypocritical for a Christian to ‘bless the Lord and Father,’” the document continues, “and then turn around and ‘curse human beings who are made in the likeness and image of God’ (Jas 3:9).”

“Between violence and indifference, persistent and humble dialogue is the necessary path to peace,” the statement said.

The statement’s release comes during a tense presidential election year, fewer than five months until the rematch between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

“Let us pray, then, that by turning away from violence, away from anger, away from demeaning others who are made in the likeness and image of God, we may work for peace through dialogue and justice,” the statement concludes.

“We pray with trust and thanksgiving that the Lord will bless our country, including our political process, and that ‘the tender mercy of our God’ will ‘guide our feet into the path of peace’ (Lk 1:78-79).”