Annual Catholic Appeal helps chaplains bring Christ to travelers

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Making his rounds through Lambert-St. Louis International Airport following noon Mass there on a recent weekday, Deacon Jim Martin saw Army Specialist Jerome Cawley sitting alone in the James S. McDonnell USO.

The deacon sat with Cawley, who told the chaplain that he was on the way from southern California to West Point military academy to be a member of the staff, "an amazing opportunity" as he called it. He was selected for the position that pulled him from the Army Reserves to active-duty. The young soldier appreciated that Deacon Martin prayed for the success and well-being of himself and his family.

Deacon Martin is a chaplain with and president of the St. Louis Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, Inc. The Catholic portion of the chaplaincy is funded through a grant from the Annual Catholic Appeal. With an ever-present smile, the deacon urged the young man, who was raised in a Christian family but no longer goes to church, to stop by the chapel and "get back in the fold of the 'other army.'"

Earlier, the chaplain spotted a woman sitting alone in the airport who had a bandage covering her eye. Deacon Martin checked with her to see if all was well. She was fine, and he moved on.

At the noon Mass, a phrase from the reading from Galatians, "Walk in the manner pleasing to God," perhaps described the efforts of the chaplains who walk in the airport to see if they can help people who may be struggling with personal difficulties.

Easing pain

The three Catholic priests and six deacons who serve in the chaplaincy don't have to look very hard to find someone crying in the airport, usually sitting by themselves.

"The Holy Spirit leads you to them," Deacon Martin said. "All of a sudden their story comes out, and it's usually one of tremendous pain -- their mother is dying and they haven't talked in several years, they feel so bad and don't know what to do. Well, we just listen, that's all we do. It's called the ministry of presence."

The chaplaincy is present to travelers, employees, contractors and more, including occasional homeless people. "There's always somebody who needs to be heard," Deacon Martin said, citing a woman that morning on a break who came in and was assisted with some Scripture study.

Appeal funding

The Annual Catholic Appeal began funding the chaplaincy a year ago. Before that, a skycap at the airport, a nonCatholic man, donated to the chaplaincy all of his $1 tips each day, which amounted to about $10,000 to $12,000 a year. He'd come in and stuff the donation box, kneel down and say a quick prayer. When he was laid off from his job, that source of donations stopped.

The chaplaincy does receive some donations, amounting to perhaps $200 a month, but not enough to cover expenses.

Working with Auxiliary Bishop Edward Rice, the funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal -- $26,000 this year -- has plugged a gap in expenses for the Catholic chaplaincy and "is a real blessing," Deacon Martin said. "We don't ask for much."

The chaplains receive reimbursement for their mileage, which is especially important in retaining the volunteers who live out of the immediate area, Deacon Martin said.

The deacon tells of the people affected by their experiences with the chaplaincy, including a baggage handler at the airport who started talking with one of the deacon-chaplains and became interested in the Catholic faith. He eventually went through the process of becoming a Catholic.

The chaplaincy is a big part of the airport, the deacon said, citing a packed memorial service that was held at the chapel for an employee.


Carolyn Conner, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Florissant and an employee of American Airlines, said the opportunity to attend Mass is a gift and to participate as a lector is a blessing. She said attending Mass is a witness to her co-workers of her Catholic faith, and they appreciate knowing that she prays for them and their families.

Another person at the weekday Mass, shuttle driver Tim Holton of Our Lady of the Holy Cross Parish in St. Louis, has been attending Masses and stopping in briefly for prayer for 25 years. He knew Father Ed Hemkens, the priest who founded the chaplaincy. All the priests and the deacons have been people who put the needs of others first, Holton noted: "This is just a wonderful place to come for spirituality, for the restoration of your soul, to reflect and re-calibrate your day."

Holton noted that he had some health concerns at one point, and Father Joseph Rajpaul Sundararaj prayed for him and reassured him he would be OK. The prayers and words were a big comfort to him, and his health concern ended up being no threat to his life.

Airport chaplaincy
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