Shortly after John Kevin Boland was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, he established a new parish deep in the rural south of Georgia. The new parish, which became known as Sandhill, comprised roughly 100 families living in a cluster of trailers, at the center of which three trailers stood side by side to serve as a church.
A month later, the Diocese of Savannah held a statewide day of fellowship in the town of Perry. Each parish brought a colorful banner to display its name. The one that stood out to Bishop Boland, however, was the white sheet tied to a tree branch with the name “Sandhill” handwritten on it.
The display was humble, but the message was clear, Bishop Boland said. Regardless of its size or the structure of its church, Sandhill parish was a proud part of the Catholic family.
Serving the Church on the Margins
Bishop Emeritus Boland was one of three alumni from the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE) who gathered at Rose Hill on Oct. 22 to share their experiences of working with the poorest of America’s Catholics. Bishop Boland, GRE ’91, was joined by Shay Auerbach, S.J., GRE ’92, of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, and Veronica Rayas, Ph.D., GRE ’07, of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas.
The event, “Fordham Serving the Church on the Margins in America,” was a joint effort between Fordham and Catholic Extension, a papal society that supports dioceses in need, including those in which the three Fordham alumni serve.
Founded in 1905, Catholic Extension serves 13 million Catholics in 94 dioceses around the United States and has provided more than $1.2 billion in grants. The organization also awards scholarships for diocesan workers to attend schools such as Fordham for training in religious education and leadership. Fordham alone has received $5.5 million in scholarships from the organization to educate lay ministers and clergy working in Catholic Extension dioceses.
This educational component is critical to the Catholic Extension mission because most poor, rural dioceses lack access to religious leadership, said Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension.
“Sometimes it’s hard for those of us from New York, Chicago, and Boston, where the church is so well established, to conceive of the experience of Catholicism in places where there’s not an abundance of parishes, schools, clergy, and diocesan instructors,” Father Wall said.
“These are places where there’s a great distance between neighboring parishes, where Catholic worship on Sundays often takes place in double-wide trailers, and where there’s one priest for every 7,000 Catholics.”
Bishop Boland said that this has been his experience serving in the Diocese of Savannah, which covers 90 counties in southern Georgia. The diocese extends more than 37,000 square miles, all the way to the borders of Alabama to the west and Florida to the south.
“The diocese is bigger than the entire country from which I came,” said Bishop Boland, a native of Ireland.
Extending a Welcome to Migrants
Distance and limited resources are not the only challenges at hand, the panelists said. Forty percent of the families in Catholic Extension dioceses live below the poverty level. Many are migrants who have fled violence in Mexico and Central America. Because the majority of these migrants are Catholic, they find refuge in the parish communities.
“In El Paso, the parishes pulled together to receive the migrant families who were released from [U.S.] detention centers,” Rayas said. “People came forward to give these families a place to sleep and to take a shower, to help connect them with family members, help get them plane or bus tickets, and to just listen to their stories.”
C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D., dean of GRE — who himself grew up in Savannah and attended a parish supported by Catholic Extension — emphasized the impact of the organization’s work and the importance of its relationship with Fordham.
“The educational resources I had access to were because of Catholic Extension,” Anderson said. “The resources it provides strengthen the whole church and open up opportunities to people everywhere.”
“Our graduates are out there with Catholic Extension and they’re turning faith into action. It’s a powerful story, and it’s a story that we need to tell and to spread.”
The event was co-sponsored by GRE and Catholic Extension with support from the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.