St. Gabriel Mercy Center celebrates finalist status

By Maureen Smith

MOUND BAYOU – The staff and clients at St. Gabriel Mercy center were honored to be ranked among the finalists for the Lumen Christi Award. This year, the organization recognized eight ministries across the country for their work in bringing Christ to the margins. Extension wrote brief profiles online of the finalists and offered longer features in its fall magazine. They include the winner, Father Enrique Herrera, a pastor in California working to send the immigrant children in his care to college, a military chaplain helping heal the wounds of war, two pastors working with Native American populations, women religious bringing the gospel to their dioceses and lay leaders welcoming a booming Hispanic population in their communities. The St. Gabriel Center was in the middle of this amazing group of evangelizers and pastors. The Sisters of Mercy opened the center. It is now run by a community of Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity and a staff of local lay people. Education is at the center of the work there. Teenagers and young adults attend GED classes, adults learn how to sew and sell their creations, and the Parents as Teachers program demonstrates how to become better advocates and caregivers. The senior program offers a meal, exercise and activities. On a Thursday morning in August, the center was packed. Every program was in session, including a birthday party for the seniors. “It’s always busy,” said Mavis Honorable, COO. “We just prayed that God’s will be done,” said Sister Monica Mary DeQuardo, executive director of the center, when she found out they were among the finalists. She was delighted that the work of her predecessors and present staff caught the attention of Bishop Joseph Kopcaz and Catholic Extension. She and the staff released a joint statement about this year’s winner. “We acknowledge the contributing and outstanding efforts of Father Enrique Herrera in his Faith Community of Holy Trinity Church in the Salinas Valley of the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. There is no doubt that Father Enrique is a very pivotal person – as pastor – in the continuing education and Catholic social outreach for the many Hispanic people of his parish as well as the civic community of Greenfield and surrounding areas where the Catholic Church is growing immensely and rapidly,” it read. Sister DeQuardo and Sister Emy Beth Furrer have served at the center for the past two years. Much of the lay staff, including Honorable, Trena Robinson, development director, are natives of Mound Bayou and proud of their Delta town. It remains the oldest all-black community in the United States. It was founded by freed slaves and boasted a booming local economy, healthcare and a train station in days past. Today, much of the industry has left, and with it, much of the population. In recent years, groups have started working to preserve the heritage in this town. Honorable takes visitors on a tour, showing them the elegant founder’s houses, which are under renovation with hopes of becoming bed-andbreakfast destinations; and a modern medical complex where residents can get a low-cost ride to visit a doctor or dentist. Honorable said when she was younger, the complex was a collection of trailers. Peter Wood and his brothers still operate Peter’s Pottery just across a field from the center, drawing collectors from across the Southeast to the heart of the Delta. St. Gabriel is also expanding. Youth volunteers from Biloxi and Hattiesburg have transformed the old church building into classroom spaces. Sister DeQuardo hopes to expand adult education into those rooms. “Many of our parents can’t help their kids in school, because they are lacking in education,” said Sister DeQuardo. The project was moving along nicely, but stalled this summer. “We need a new roof,” she explained. Heavy summer rains revealed a leak in the newly renovated building. Honorable is in the process of getting bids to replace it. Then, the staff will turn to the task of raising the money. Sister DeQuardo said they also need a van to pick up their seniors. And furniture for the classrooms would be nice. There may be a long list of needs, but the staff is undaunted. They tackle their challenges one at a time. It’s the same way they serve their clients, as individuals with dignity and potential.

MOUND BAYOU – Bobbie Dulaney, center, coordinates the sewing progam for the St. Gabriel Center. On August 15, she works with two of her clients. (Photo by Maureen Smith)

California pastor of immigrant parish honored with Lumen Christi Award

CHICAGO (CNS) Today, Greenfield in California’s Salinas Valley looks and feels different because Father Enrique Herrera believed that the Catholic Church could make life better for the city’s residents, according to Chicago-based Catholic Extension.

Father Enrique Herrera, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Greenfield, Calif., is the winner of the 40th annual Lumen Christi Award of the Catholic Extension Society. He is pictured in a late June photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Catholic Extension Society)

For his efforts in the Catholic community and the wider community, Catholic Extension has chosen Father Herrera to receive the 2017-2018 Lumen Christi Award, its highest honor. The priest, who is pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Greenfield in the Diocese of Monterrey, will be officially presented with the award during a Mass at his parish Dec. 10. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the award. When Father Herrera arrived at Holy Trinity Parish and saw that parishioners were struggling to feed their families and had few opportunities for a brighter future, he decided that his parish would become a beacon of hope. Together with his parishioners, he started new programs focused on strengthening faith, education and community. “Hearts were opened. Individuals started changing. Families started changing. Neighborhoods started changing. Classrooms started changing. The Police Department, Fire Department, school officials, City Council and mayor all got on board,” Extension said in announcing the award.
“The Lumen Christi Award shines brightly to honor and give recognition to people who are great missionaries in our country,” said Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension. “Father Herrera is a great example. He has stood up as a shepherd for his flock and raised them up. He is a ‘voice for the voiceless,’ but he is also helping people to fi nd their own voice, helping them to aspire and to dream. He is a true missionary.” Catholic Extension’s selection of Father Herrera and his bustling parish of immigrant parishioners also shines a light on a seismic shift that has occurred in the Catholic Church over the past 25 years. A new study released by the Public Religion Research Institute documented what America magazine
called the “shift from a predominantly white church clustered in the Northeast and Midwest to a church influenced by Latin American immigration and located in the South and West.” Before Father Herrera was born, his parents had worked in the Salinas Valley. After his birth in Mexico he is the third of seven children his father continued to travel there regularly as a migrant worker to support the family. Enduring his father’s long absences, he developed a soft spot for the plight of migrants. By age 10, Father Herrera felt the tug toward priesthood. Wanting to be “a voice for the voiceless,” he entered the seminary in Guadalajara, Mexico, after high school. When his family immigrated to the Salinas Valley, he caught the attention of the bishop of Monterey, who asked him to join the diocese. Ever since, he has served the poor in several parishes, working primarily with immigrants. “I have come full circle,” he said in a statement. “As the son of immigrants, I am now able to serve immigrants in the same location.” As pastor of Holy Trinity, Father Herrera shepherds
the only Catholic church in Greenfield. Catholic Extension helped build the church in 1934. A city of 16,000, Greenfield is in the heart of the Salinas Valley. It is comprised mainly of immigrants who come to harvest lettuce, broccoli, grapes and strawberries. Half of the city’s population is under age 21. The average income there is almost 40 percent below the national poverty level. Father Herrera is particularly focused on the youth of the parish. Most of their parents, 90 percent of whom are farmworkers in nearby fields. Their work schedules keep them away from home. This past May, 446 children received their first Communion. Father Herrera also has ramped up the number of teenagers being confirmed. Hundreds are in the confirmation program each year, and he encourages them to be leaders. The teens become his core group of volunteers because they have the “energy, wisdom and understanding” to guide others, he said. With Catholic Extension’s help, this summer the parish started a new summer camp for children. The program includes lessons on faith and on science. For adults, Father Herrera tries to work around their long work schedules. When agricultural fields are dormant, he holds daily Bible classes that attract more than 400. The parish has six Masses each weekend, including four in Spanish. Between liturgies, baptisms and quinceaneras, about 4,000 people come to church each weekend.
Father Herrera believes that the Catholic Church has a role in addressing human needs alongside the spiritual ones. He knows that his parishioners confront pervasive poverty and complex problems, and he wants to “bring the Catholic faith to the streets.” “We need to put the Catholic Church in the social arena, so it not only helps people grow in their faith but also to grow as members of a community,” he explained. The parish has a food bank, English classes, immigration assistance, nutrition and parenting classes. Every year during spring break, 300 high school students attend anti-bullying and anti-violence classes. The priest has established soccer and basketball leagues to keep young people engaged during their free time. “Father Herrera advocates for our community to ensure that we get what we need spiritually as well as physically, emotionally, intellectually and in other aspects that are needed for a balanced life,” said Greenfield Mayor Jesus Olvera Garcia, who is a Holy Trinity parishioner. “Holy Trinity Catholic Church has the doors open to welcome everyone to be part of their events and services.” Father Herrera’s dream is that all his young parishioners will attend college, so the parish holds fundraisers to provide college scholarships and connects students to other resources and scholarships. Catholic Extension, the Chicago-based papal society devoted to building churches and the Catholic Church in America’s poorest places, has supported the Diocese of Jackson for many decades. 

Catholic Extension honors St. Gabriel Center

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Saint Gabriel Mercy Center in Mound Bayou is getting national recognition thanks to Catholic Extension. The center is one of eight finalists in the running for the Lumen Christi Award.
The award is the highest honor bestowed by the Chicago-based organization, the leading national supporter of missionary work in poor and remote parts of the United States. St. Gabriel fits that description perfectly. Situated in Mound Bayou, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the center offers hope and assistance to one of the poorest communities in the state.
Mound Bayou was once a thriving center for black commerce – founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. The town boasted of cotton mills, manufacturing businesses, even a hospital that treated African-Americans from across the state. A National Public Radio report from March, 2017 told the history of the town. In the story, Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, said desegregation and the promise of better jobs lured away the population and led to the overall decline of the community. The mills closed, the hospital shut down. Empty properties began to fall apart. Once a town of 9,000, the population now hovers around 1,500.
The Catholic Church has been a presence in the community since St. Gabriel chapel opened in 1949. A school followed. As the years went by and the population dwindled, St. Gabriel had to re-invent itself. The school closed in 1990, but the Mercy Center opened to provide resources to the community. The parish closed in 2013.
Sisters of Mercy ran the operation until 2015 when a group of Franciscan Sisters of Charity took over administration. “In many ways, our St. Gabriel Mercy Center is a hub for outreach services that accommodate the people of Mound Bayou and the surrounding areas throughout Bolivar County,” said Sister Monica Mary DeQuardo, current executive director.
She works with a team of locals to anticipate and offer what the people in the community want and need. “Our services are professional, and delivered simply – completely dependent on volunteers, donations, grants and effective and efficient management. Thus, our present programs … offer a variety of adult educational services – at no expense to our patrons.
“We have a computer lab; General Education Diploma training, Parents as Teachers, senior outreach, a sewing program and the Delta Boutique,” she added. The staff offers emergency assistance for food and utilities and a thrift store.
Sister said there are signs of hope in the town once known as the “jewel of the Delta.” A clinic has opened to once again provide medical care. Most of the staff is from the town – in fact, several senior administrators at St. Gabriel have moved back to the town after living elsewhere.
The next project on the center’s list: adult education and tutoring. As the staff assisted parents they realized many adults in the community struggle with literacy.
When a youth group from the Diocese of Biloxi came to visit a couple summers ago, the board of directors set them to work converting the old church building into classrooms for an expanded adult literacy program. The work continued in April when a group from Maine came to offer service. “Though the edifice is still standing empty because we have not been able to secure a grant for furniture,” said Sister DeQuardo. If St. Gabriel wins the Lumen Christi Award, Catholic Extension will provide $25,000 to help with the effort.
The Latin phrase “Lumen Christi,” taken from the Easter Vigil, means “Light of Christ.” Since 1978, the award has honored individuals or groups who demonstrate how the power of faith can transform lives and 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.”
Winners will be announced in the fall.

Votes needed for Lumen Christi Award

By Maureen Smith
The Redemptorist community serving the Hispanic population in the Mississippi Delta is asking for votes to help earn Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi Award.
Every year, Catholic Extension honors an individual or group working in one of America’s mission dioceses who demonstrates how the power of faith can transform lives and communities. Lumen Christi recipients are the hidden heroes in our midst. They bring light and hope to the forgotten corners of the country and inspire those around them to be the “Light of Christ” as well. The award comes with a $50,000 grant to support the recipient’s ministry.

GREENWOOD – Bishop Joseph Kopacz commissioned the Redemptorist priests last year at the Chapel of Mercy located in the grounds of the Locus Benedictus Retreat Center. (Photo by Elsa Baughman)

GREENWOOD – Bishop Joseph Kopacz commissioned the Redemptorist priests last year at the Chapel of Mercy located in the grounds of the Locus Benedictus Retreat Center. (Photo by Elsa Baughman)

Extension uses several factors to determine who gets the award, but one of them is online votes. All nominees are posted on the Catholic Extension website. Anyone can go vote and then post their vote on social media to encourage others to vote.
The Redemptorist community came to the Diocese of Jackson in the fall of 2014. They live in Greenwood, but serve the Hispanic community throughout the Delta. The men who serve here say they have found a warm welcome and plenty of work to do in the communities where they serve. They go out into the Delta seeking Hispanic communities – offering a Good Friday service between shifts on the grounds of a catfish processing plant, celebrating Mass in a trailer park where many people don’t have transportation to get to a parish and speaking with local pastors about the needs in their communities.
If they get the award, “we will use it to train lay ministers and catechists,” said Father Scott Katzenberger, CSsR, a member of the community here. He said the community would also invest in catechism for the people. While much of their ministry so far has been the ministry of presence and teaching, a lot of it also involves driving. Father Patrick Keyes, said for every hour they spend with a community, the fathers may have spent three hours driving.
The Redemptorist order reformulated its national provinces in 1996. As part of that, they decided to create teams of people who can minister in dioceses in need for limited amounts of time. The community conducted a national search to find places where the need what greatest. Mississippi was one of the communities the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recommended. The Redemptorists priests are from the Denver Province and have committed to five years in the Jackson diocese.
Past recipients of the Lumen Christi Award, Latin for “Light of Christ,” have included priests, women religious, and lay leaders from across the nation. This year there are almost 40 nominees from dioceses across the nation.
Those who wish to support the Redemptorists can vote online at: