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$2.7-million grant funds social outreach projects across diocese

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LESSONS: Free English-language classes are among the programs offered by Casa de Misericordia (House of Mercy), a project of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Casa de Misericordia was one of 18 projects funded by a $2.7-million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. (Credit: Courtesy Casa Misericordia)

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SAN DIEGO — “It sounded like something that Jesus would offer you.”

That’s how Sister Kathleen Warren, director of the diocesan Office for Women Religious, felt when she heard about the grant that the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation wanted to give.

In late 2021, the foundation reached out to Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, expressing interest in funding some of the diocese’s social outreach projects, and it invited the agency to submit a grant proposal.

That proposal was approved in August of 2022, and a $2.7-million grant was jointly awarded to Catholic Charities and to 11 congregations of women religious in the diocese.

Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor, executive director of Catholic Charities, said the Hilton Foundation wanted “a single conduit” to support various projects. This led to the creation of the Sisters’ Faith-In-Action Network (FAN), a consortium of the 11 participating congregations, and fostered close collaboration among the sisters, the Office for Women Religious, and Catholic Charities.

The grant money was used to fund 15 individual projects sponsored by the sisters, and three Catholic Charities projects. The amounts received by each project ranged in size from $20,000 to $800,000. Pajanor said the latter figure represents the largest first-time grant that the foundation has ever awarded for a project of this nature in the United States.

Though the grant supplied funding for only one year, Pajanor and Sister Warren hope that it might be renewed in 2024.

“Hilton Foundation’s grant provided a groundbreaking opportunity for the existing ministries within our diocese,” said Cardinal Robert W. McElroy. “I am impressed to see how ministries working together can create and show the power of collective impact.

“Our diocese is blessed to have the sisters and their respective ministries, as we are blessed to have such a vibrant Catholic Charities,” he continued. “The Conrad N. Hilton grant has truly been a source of great goodness for the people of our diocese. We look forward to what comes next.”

Sister Warren said that the projects respond to the needs of a wide variety of vulnerable populations, including struggling students, isolated senior citizens, asylum-seekers and survivors of human trafficking.

One of the projects is Casa de Misericordia (House of Mercy), run by the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. It seeks to meet the needs of migrants who have crossed the U.S.-Mexican border. Among other programs, the project offers a Community Resource Center that provides case-management; a Community Garden, where families are taught to grow and harvest healthy food; free English-language classes; and, in partnership with Casa Cornelia Law Center, help to acquire legal documentation.

The impact of the Hilton funds was significant for Casa de Misericordia, according to Mercy Sister Mary Waskowiak, who founded the project in 2020.

“We could not … serve the number of people we are serving without the financial support of the Hilton Foundation,” she said.

During the period from October of 2022 to August of 2023, Casa de Misericordia reached 3,379 people, many of whom were returning clients. (About 1,200 of those were recipients of the project’s food distribution program, whose funding comes from another source than the Hilton grant.)

“The Hilton grant gave us a security that helped our ministry to grow, to thrive and to serve others in need, especially migrant persons,” Sister Waskowiak said.

Thanks to the funds received from the grant, she said, Casa de Misericordia has been able to pay immigrants’ travel expenses.

For example, a family of three — father, mother and 6-year-old son — walked from Venezuela to the border at Laredo, Texas. There, the mother and son were bused to Brooklyn, N.Y., and the father was bused to San Diego. Casa de Misericordia paid for the father’s transportation to New York, where he was reunited with his family.

Sister Waskowiak recalled a particularly “dramatic story” illustrating what the grant enabled her project to accomplish.

A few months ago, a 17-year-old Mexican man illegally entered the United States to be near his father. While scaling the border wall, he fell onto the U.S. side and was taken to intensive care with severe injuries. His mother, with a travel visa, joined her husband at their son’s bedside.

“Thanks to Hilton Foundation funds, we were able to provide rent money for their stay at the hospital,” said Sister Waskowiak. “We also provided transportation for the mother back to Mexico when her visitor’s visa expired.”

Another grant recipient was Women of Wisdom (WOW), a project run in collaboration by the Sisters of Providence, Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Its mission is to visit and support senior citizens in low-income housing, retirement homes and hospitals, lifting their spirits and providing them with a sense of community; the project also involves care-giving for elderly sisters at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Convent in San Ysidro.

Catholic Charities Program Manager Ines Garre, who oversees the grant recipients, noted that Women of Wisdom was a program that “started from scratch” in response to the availability of the grant. She said that the three participating congregations have had a “great collaboration … as if they have been working together for many years” and have made “a great impact” on the seniors.

Sister Josephine Bryan and Sister Mary Jo Piccione are members of the Sisters of Providence and gerontological nurses. They are both involved in the WOW program.

Sister Bryan, referencing remarks by Pope Francis and applying them to the WOW project, explained that the project works to replace “a culture of indifference” with “a culture of care.”

She noted that many seniors do not see their children very often and, as a result, feel isolated. It’s not that the children are neglectful, she clarified, but because of busy schedules or geographic distance. As a result of the seniors’ mobility issues, many even feel isolated from the Church, she said, recalling one senior who told her that it had been four years since she had been able to go to confession.

Sister Bryan said that the COVID-19 pandemic diminished social activities at the senior facilities – something that the project is working to reverse. The sisters visit some seniors as often as once a week, meeting with them in groups as well as making personal visits to their rooms.

One senior described herself as having been “a scaredy cat all my life.” When the sisters asked what the gatherings organized by WOW have meant to her, she said, they have helped her “to know that I don’t need to stay in my own corner.”

“I thank the good Lord that He’s allowed this program to start, and I hope and pray that it continues,” she said.

Another senior, a 98-year-old, also spoke positively of the program.

“We need it,” she told the sisters during a recent visit. “We (cannot) go to God, but God is coming to us by bringing you here.”

The sisters have brought spirituality, the sacraments and fellowship into the lives of seniors. At the sisters’ invitation, priests have come to hear confessions and to confer the anointing of the sick. The sisters have done arts-and-crafts projects with the seniors and have brought them together for Advent reflection, Taizé prayer, and communal rosary. They also have taken seniors to Mass at nearby Catholic churches and have simply taken the time to talk to them and listen to their stories.

“It’s not anything spectacular,” Sister Bryan said modestly of the WOW project. “But … (the seniors are) hungry for companionship.”

She noted that the project isn’t a one-way street, where the sisters are the ones giving and the seniors are receiving.

“We go home blessed. … I’ve never seen God, but I can sure see God in them.”

Another beneficiary of the Hilton Foundation grant was the Myanmar/Burmese Immigrant Catholic Community run by Sister Nant Shwe, of the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier. This project provides catechesis to child and adult immigrants from Myanmar, and it also trains youth and young adults to spread the faith within their immigrant community.

The project’s services include weekly online religion classes for children and young adults, annual in-person retreats for adults, marriage preparation, youth summer camps, translation services and assisting young adults with college applications.

A progress report covering the period from November of 2022 through August of 2023, showed that the project had reached more than 1,200 members of the Burmese Catholic community.

The Hilton grant also funded Students Without Limits (SWOL), a project of the Society of the Sacred Heart, which provides legal, mental health, and continuing education support to underserved minority and immigrant teenagers from low-income families, most of whom will be the first in their families to attend college.

Grant Recipients
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation awarded a $2.7-million grant to Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego and 11 congregations of women religious in the diocese.

Funds went to Catholic Charities for Diocese Outreach, Emotional Wellbeing, and the Low Bono Program.

The sisters’ projects that received grant money included:

-Academy Projects
(Congregation: Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament)

-Border Compassion
(Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet)

-Border Ministry to Migrants
(Religious of Jesus and Mary)

-Casa Cornelia Law Center
(Society of the Holy Child Jesus)

-Casa de Misericordia
(Sisters of Mercy of the Americas)

-Escuela de Tareas Calasanz
(Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament)

-Mary’s Guest House
(Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary)

-Myanmar/Burmese Catholic Community
(Sisters of St. Francis Xavier)

-San Diego Ignatian Volunteer Corps
(Society of the Sacred Heart)

-School Parenting Program
(Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament)

-Silviano Carrillo Centers
(Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament)

-Southern California Immigration Project
(Sisters of Social Service)

-Spiritual Ministry Center
(Society of the Sacred Heart)

-Students Without Limits
(Society of the Sacred Heart)

-Women of Wisdom
(Sisters of Providence, Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament)

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