BUILD MY CHURCH | Annual Catholic Appeal takes cue from St. Francis

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

It's time for art class, and Sister Teresa crouches alongside Abby McCarthy as she flattens a ball of Play-Doh on the table. She reaches over and plucks out a heart-shaped cookie cutter from the plastic bin on the table and helps the little girl stamp out a fresh image from the bright pink pancake she's just formed.

"Tin-dun," Sister Teresa proclaims. That's Vietnamese for heart. Abby perfectly echos the pronunciation. Sister Teresa breaks out in a satisfactory grin, pleased with her pint-sized protege's ability to say the word so well.

This was the extent of the exchange between the four-year-old and the Sister Teresa Thanh Nguyen, local superior of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, who came to St. Louis from Vietnam in 2012 with members of her community to minister here. Sister Teresa and Sister Louisa Dinh started helping at Sacred Heart School in Florissant with students in the classroom this year.

While there were few words spoken between the two, their interaction shows an example of living out the call to "Go, build my Church," which Christ uttered to St. Francis from the cross centuries ago. "Build My Church" is the theme of the 2014 Annual Catholic Appeal, which supports various ministries, including those that help people in need, Catholic education, support for vocations and the promoting the inherent dignity of life.

This year's appeal, which runs April 26 through May 11, has a goal of $13 million. Approximately 91 cents of every dollar raised goes back into the community in the form of direct services.

The annual appeal "has a tremendous history of bringing diverse people together to serve the greater St. Louis area," says Jim Crowley, chair of the 2014 appeal. "It's one of the best-kept secrets. This year, we're also taking our lead from ... Pope Francis, and St. Francis being the reason why he chose his name. His words and his actions draw people closer to Christ, and in that way he's helping to build the Church."

Sisters Teresa and Louisa are still learning English, but that hasn't held them back from connecting with students at faculty at Sacred Heart School, says pastor Msgr. Mark Ullrich.

"I am amazed -- the language, with what we think could be a barrier -- the children can cut right through that and see the sisters for who they are," he says. "I can see the love and the care they have for these kids. I was big on having that religious witness here, and I got more than I ever asked for."

Grit, grime and a parish calendar

The appeal has five primary areas in which donations are directed. Donations support Catholic education, youth programs and retreats, marriage preparation, formation of priests and deacons, vocations, those who work in the missions and with the poor and parish emergency needs. Appeal organizers explain that "building the Church is a spiritual endeavor to strengthen faith through service to the poor, those who are homeless and hungry, the sick and those imprisoned by poverty in its many forms. The appeal is a truly concrete way we can help bring others to Jesus Christ and build His Church."

Sometimes, building the Church comes in less obvious ways.

Tom Crow is a mechanic at a little car repair shop and gas station in Maryland Heights. It's the kind of environment in which you'd expect plenty of grit, grime, tossing around tools and the occasional crass joke or girlie calendar hanging on the wall.

But not Crow. The 46-year-old member of St. John Bosco Parish in Creve Coeur proudly hangs his parish calendar on the wall at the shop -- and it often becomes a point of conversation among his co-workers and customers. "It gives me the opportunity to talk about the martyrs and saints and their feast days," he says. "Customers sometimes ask questions around Easter and Christmas."

From the surface, it would be hard to guess that Crow teaches fourth graders at St. John Bosco's parish school of religion. He's got three boys of his own -- they're 19, 13 and 12 -- but they started going to PSR long before he became a teacher, known as a catechist in the PSR world, in 2005.

"I was wanting to do more with our church," he says. Inspired during a moment at eucharistic adoration at the Carmelite Monastery, Crow responded to an ad in the parish bulletin seeking PSR helpers.

He was fresh off the street, starting as an assistant. Sister Ann Ann Martinek, OSF, who coordinates the PSR program, told him she was looking for more of a male presence within the program, and Crow seemed a good fit. After helping in the classroom for a few years, he eventually got his own class to teach. Crow says what he's received from the experience has far outweighed what he's given.

"I always say, if you don't know your Catholic faith, you can't defend your faith," he says. For someone who wasn't always an active Catholic, Crow explained that he's realized that life "is more than just me -- there's something bigger than me out there. And when you understand that, there's that inner peace of knowing that Christ loves you even when you're having a rough day.

Eatin' from the Garden of Feeden

Donations to the Annual Catholic Appeal are far reaching, often impacting people and places way beyond the borders of those who receive funding from the appeal. Parishes like Holy Spirit in Maryland Heights have received assistance from the appeal in the past, but the generosity of parishioners who give back to the appeal -- and their community -- extends even further.

Take for example the Garden of Feeden, a five-year effort by Holy Spirit parishioners to do something with a vacant field adjacent to the church. After attending an ACTS retreat, parishioner Charlie Milligan says he felt called to do something with the empty parcel -- to start a small garden that would provide fresh produce to the parish's food pantry. He was sure that his pastor would shoot down the idea.

"To my dismay, he said, 'Go for it.' I really didn't know what I was doing, but I felt like I was called to this," he says.

On a patch of land measuring 100 feet by 100 feet, parishioners began planting whatever they could: tomatoes, corn, peppers and zucchini. They plant whatever they can get in donations. Almost two dozen donated fruit trees -- cherries, plums, apples and peaches -- were just planted, and they're waiting for the bounty to develop.

They've grown so much produce that the fruits of their labor are being sent to other places, including the St. Augustine food pantry, which receives a load once a week during the growing season. A senior community in Maryland Heights gets occasional donations, and sometimes people in need who have heard of the garden by word of mouth just show up.

"It's usually elderly or people who have lost their jobs," says Milligan. "There are stories of people who have worked all their lives and got laid off." Parishioners have never had a problem with people taking advantage of the situation. "We said we're never going to sell anything, and it all had to go to the poor." Sometimes the crops are so plentiful that extras are left out after church for parishioners to take, with free will donations being accepted for the food pantry.

Milligan says "God asks us to pray and to put a little skin in the game. when the community sees you out there, that helps build the Church. They can see we are being prayerful and how attending Mass is working in our lives.

"When it comes to building the Church, there's a lot of blocks, and I didn't know the structure as well as I do now," he says. "We're just one little brick in the whole thing. It's just amazing to see the bricks involved."

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