Catholic Charities celebrates century - Catholic Courier

Catholic Charities celebrates century

In late 1910 Bishop Thomas F. Hickey began planning a diocesanwide special collection to raise funds for the work of various Catholic charities caring for orphans, the elderly and the needy in the 42-year-old Diocese of Rochester. It’s probably safe to say that Bishop Hickey had no idea that his collection, which raised $6,800 in January 1911, also laid the groundwork for a range of charitable agencies that would eventually operate with multimillion-dollar budgets.

Yet that’s exactly what he was doing, noted Jack Balinsky, diocesan director of Catholic Charities. By organizing that collection, Bishop Hickey was publicly acknowledging the common mission shared by various Catholic hospitals, orphanages, asylums and volunteer groups in the diocese, which were then run primarily by religious communities and parishes.

Bishop Hickey took things one step further in 1912, when he convened a meeting of Catholic laywomen. At this meeting was born the idea for the diocesan Catholic Charities Guild, the precursor to diocesan Catholic Charities, which integrated the various diocesan charitable organizations into one governing body. In its first year of existence, the Catholic Charities Guild served 500 families, provided 1,600 quarts of milk to those in need and paid $1,000 in widow’s rents, Balinsky said. Guild members were motivated by their mission of helping others help themselves.

One hundred years after Bishop Hickey’s auspicious collection, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rochester, its subsidiaries and affiliated agencies help thousands of people each year through hundreds of programs. But the agencies’ staff and volunteers still are motivated by the same mission upon which the Guild was founded.

"We’ve always been about helping people to move towards independence — independence from drugs, independence from social services, independence from nursing homes," said Carolyn Portanova, president and CEO of Catholic Family Center in Rochester.

Catholic Charities USA

Diocesan Catholic Charities shares its 100th anniversary with Catholic Charities USA, the national office for local Catholic Charities agencies and affiliates throughout the United States. Both anniversaries mark the formation of integrated and centralized agencies formed from independent Catholic programs that predate them both.

The Ursuline Sisters established the first formal Catholic charity in the United States in 1727 when they opened an orphanage, health facility and school for street girls in New Orleans, according to information provided by Catholic Charities USA. By 1900, the United States was home to more than 800 Catholic institutions caring for children and the elderly, disabled and ill.

In 1910 the National Conference of Catholic Charities was founded on the campus of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The event drew 400 delegates from 25 states, and most of those delegates were laypeople. Over the years, the National Conference of Catholic Charities grew and became more active, and in 1929 Msgr. John O’Grady, the conference’s executive secretary from 1920-61, gained national attention for his strong support of social reform and social legislation based on Catholic principles.

The national conference also lent its support to the Social Security Act, which first passed Congress in 1935, and the National Housing Act, which was passed in 1949. Two years later, the first meeting of the International Conference of Catholic Charities was held under the auspices of the Vatican. Three years later it became known as Caritas Internationalis, and today the organization is still working to eradicate poverty and social inequality around the world. Catholic Charities is the American member of Caritas Internationalis, which has 65 member nations.

In 1973 the national conference began what is now known as the Parish Social Ministry program, and in 1983 it helped found the federal Emergency Food and Shelter program. Through this program, approximately $1.8 billion was provided to local voluntary organizations throughout the country through 1999, according to Catholic Charities USA.

In 1986, the national conference changed its name to Catholic Charities USA, and in 1990 it agreed to coordinate the response to national disasters for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, now known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The agency received and administered $31 million in gifts to dioceses in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and mobilized its entire network to efficiently respond to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast region in 2005. The agency’s performance in the aftermath of those hurricanes, as well as Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, prompted the U.S. government to select Catholic Charities USA in 2009 to provide disaster case management nationwide.

Today, Catholic Charities USA supports Catholic Charities agencies and affiliates throughout the nation in their efforts to reduce poverty, support families and empower communities. The national agency provides this support through its disaster-response work as well as advocacy efforts, networking opportunities, a strong national voice, and financial support, leadership and training opportunities.

Catholic Charities USA kicked off its centennial celebration in the spring of 2009 with a series of regional summits, including one in Albany in March 2010. There, community and corporate leaders met with policy makers, educators, social-service providers and others in search of solutions to the national moral crisis of poverty, according to Catholic Charities USA. The results of these summits will be discussed during the agency’s Centennial Gathering, which will take place Sept. 25 in Washington, D.C.

Local Catholic Charities

Like Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rochester has come a long way since it first began to take shape 100 years ago. Within a few years after Bishop Hickey’s diocesanwide collection for Catholic-sponsored charities, the Catholic Charities Guild provided assistance and relief on a citywide basis, rather than parochially, and provided a structure for cooperation with other charitable organizations and social agencies, Balinsky said.

Through the leadership of Bishop Hickey, legislation was passed in 1917 for creation of the Rochester Catholic Charities Association, incorporating the work of the Guild and the Relief Department established in 1914. The name of the agency was changed to Rochester Catholic Charities in 1924. By 1930 visionary leaders had established a number of charitable departments and institutions that would become key components of diocesan Catholic Charities. Among those institutions are Rochester’s Charles and Genesee settlement houses, established in 1917 and 1924, respectively, and Livonia’s Camp Stella Maris, established in 1926. Camp Stella Maris is still an affiliate of diocesan Catholic Charities.

In 1930 Elmira Catholic Charities was established as a separate entity, although it later became an affiliate of Rochester Catholic Charities. Four years later, Catholic Charities established a separate division focused solely on casework, and in 1950 that division became known as Catholic Family Center. The new name reflected the agency’s role as a family-centered casework agency and eliminated the negative connotations sometimes associated with the word "charity," Balinsky said.

Diocesan Catholic Charities entered into a new era in 1966 with the installation of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who became titular archbishop of Newport, Wales, after leaving Rochester in 1969.

"Someone who changed the entire future of Catholic Charities even in his short time here was Bishop Sheen," Balinsky said.

Shortly after arriving in Rochester, the prelate began advocating for the poor, both in urban Rochester and in rural areas of the diocese.

"As he would go along the highways and byways and see the shanties and shacks of the people … he said, ‘We have to do something about that,’" Balinsky said.

Bishop Sheen appointed three diocesan priests to serve as "secular missionaries" — so-called because they were diocesan rather than missionary priests — in three rural areas of the diocese. These priests reached out to the poor in a number of unorthodox ways. They visited the poor in their homes; said Masses in homes, firehouses and Protestant churches; and opened medical and dental clinics.

"That was a new way for Catholic Charities and the Catholic Church to go about trying to serve the poor," Balinsky noted. "Up until then … we had gotten into a traditional social-work model."

Several years later, another key figure fundamentally changed the evolution of diocesan Catholic Charities, Balinsky added. On Jan. 1, 1977, Bishop Joseph L. Hogan, who succeeded Archbishop Sheen, appointed Charles Mulligan as head of the newly formed Office of Social Ministry. Bishop Hogan and Mulligan were visionaries who weren’t afraid to upset the status quo in order to more effectively serve those in need, Balinsky said.

In the early 1970s meanwhile, Catholic Charities USA had adopted a mission statement that encouraged diocesan agencies not only to provide direct services, but also to advocate for social justice and to reconnect with parishes. This new mission was somewhat at odds with the work of diocesan Catholic Charities, which at that time mainly provided emergency and family services.

"All too often there was great tension and friction between the traditional social-service providers and this newly emerging group whom we’ll call social-justice advocates," Balinsky said.

He noted that Mulligan was charged with bringing both groups together under one umbrella, the newly formed diocesan Office of Social Ministry, whose name Mulligan had proposed to express the threefold mission of service provision, social-justice advocacy and parish ministry.

"Charlie’s genius was that integration," Balinsky observed. "It hasn’t been easy, but that has been a monumental development and tipping point in the history of Catholic Charities."

When he appointed Mulligan head of the Office of Social Ministry, Bishop Hogan also asked Catholic Charities to immediately identify ways to extend its services to all 12 counties of the diocese, whereas it previously had focused mainly on the cities of Rochester and Elmira.


One of the ways Catholic Charities responded to Bishop Hogan’s request was through the creation of regional and subsidiary agencies with their own boards. This also helped respond to the Second Vatican Council’s call for laypeople to become more involved in the church and bring their faith into the public square, Balinsky said.

In 1980 Mary Heidkamp was hired as director of diocesan Catholic Charities’ new Department of Justice and Peace, which focused on such priorities as the promotion of peace, respect for human life, rural concerns, and the rights of farmworkers, women and minorities.

The Southern Tier Office of Social Ministry was established in 1980 with Father Neil Miller as its executive director. When Father Miller left that post in 1983 to do missionary work, he was replaced by Father Michael Bausch, who served in the post until the spring of 1985. Anthony Barbaro took over as executive director May 6, 1985, and the organization continued to thrive under his leadership, Balinsky said. Barbaro served in that position until Jan. 1, 2003, which was a big day for both Catholic Charities of the Southern Tier and for Barbaro, who became associate diocesan director of Catholic Charities, Balinsky added.

"(On Jan. 1, 2003), Tony’s good work led to the transformation of what has turned the Elmira-based Catholic Charities of the Southern Tier into four more subsidiary agencies — Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler, Catholic Charities of Steuben County, Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga and Food Bank of the Southern Tier," Balinsky said.

Giovina Caroscio was hired in August 1982 as executive director of the new Northern Tier Office of Social Ministry, which encompassed Cayuga, Wayne, Ontario, Seneca and Yates counties and was headquartered in Geneva. In 1983 the agency opened a satellite office in Cayuga County.

Caroscio’s leadership was largely responsible for the growth and evolution of the agency, which became known as Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes in 1998. In 2004, a new subsidiary was formed, with Loretta Kruger at the head of Catholic Charities of Wayne County. Deacon Timothy Sullivan took over as executive director in February 2008. In the meantime, Ellen Wayne took over as director of the Finger Lakes office in 2007.

Catholic Charities Residential Services was founded in 1980 and opened its first community residence for developmentally disabled people who had recently been deinstitutionalized. Three more residences were opened in short order. In 1982, Paul Pickering was hired as program director and later became executive director of the agency he continues to lead under the name Catholic Charities Community Services in recognition of the agency’s expansion to include services for those dealing with traumatic brain injuries and HIV/AIDS.

In 1988, Catholic Family Center merged with Catholic Youth Organization and the Genesee Valley Office of Social Ministry to form a new and improved Catholic Family Center, and Carolyn Portanova took over as this new agency’s executive director in 1989. Portanova, who had started with the agency as a counselor in its Restart substance-abuse program and worked her way through the ranks, has been with the agency for 35 years and is currently Catholic Family Center’s CEO and president.

The hiring of Portanova, Pickering, Barbaro and Caroscio were huge turning points for diocesan Catholic Charities, Balinsky said, and each has been the heart and soul of his or her respective agency for years. Another landmark moment, Portanova said, came in 1992, when Balinsky was appointed diocesan director of Catholic Charities.

"That was a major turning point for Catholic Charities," she said. "He brought organization, policies and procedures; clarity of the relationship between Catholic Charities and all of the regional agencies; and a way of communicating with the diocese, which was lacking prior to Jack being there."

Providence Housing Development Corp. was established in 1994 as an affiliate of diocesan Catholic Charities. This agency’s mission is to strengthen families and communities by creating and providing access to quality affordable housing enriched by the availability of supportive services. Providence’s first executive director, Maggie Bringewatt, led the agency until 2005, when Monica McCullough took over.

Catholic Charities of Livingston County was established in 1995 as diocesan Catholic Charities’ first single-county agency, with Richard Merges as the new agency’s first executive director. Tim McMahon succeeded Merges in 1996 and led the agency until his retirement in 2004.

"(McMahon) did so well that it really assured people on the board and the bishop that this county model could be made to work," Balinsky said. "He was the right person in the right place at a pivotal moment."

Joseph DiMino succeeded McMahon in 2004 and led Catholic Charities of Livingston County until 2010, when Carlos Garcia became the agency’s executive director.

In 2000 Kinship Family and Youth Services — which had been founded in 1972 as a program of Catholic Charities but later incorporated separately — merged with diocesan Catholic Charities, becoming a special-purpose Catholic Charities agency that focuses on the social, physical, spiritual, mental and intellectual growth and development of individuals, families and children.

Looking to the future

The Diocese of Rochester’s Catholic Charities agencies and their forerunners have been living out Jesus’ call to serve the least among us for a century, and the agencies are a source of pride for the diocese, according to Bishop Matthew H. Clark.

The staff and volunteers who keep Catholic Charities thriving locally also are proud of their agencies’ accomplishments, and rightly so, Barbaro said.

"One of the pleasures for me is just to observe all that’s going on and to see it grow, and to realize that our mission is being implemented and accomplished right before my very eyes," he said. "It just is a real indication that Catholic Charities is doing well."

That doesn’t give Catholic Charities staff members and volunteers license to stop and rest on their laurels, however, Pickering cautioned. Instead, they must continue to monitor and study the problems that plague society and tirelessly seek new ways to alleviate those problems.

Indeed, budget cuts at both the state and federal levels have created challenging conditions for Catholic Charities’ clients while at the same time creating difficulties for the agencies that serve them, Barbaro noted.

Barbaro said he is confident in the ability of local Catholic Charities agencies to respond to these challenges. Such confidence is warranted, Balinsky said, in part because a large group of dedicated volunteers are shepherding these agencies as they grow and evolve. The 300 volunteers who serve on the 11 boards of directors of diocesan Catholic Charities and its 10 subsidiary agencies and two affiliates are "the heart and soul behind Catholic Charities," he added.

"I think they are the engines who will drive whatever it is that happens in the future," Balinsky said.

Just as one century ago Bishop Hickey likely had no idea his labors later would produce such rich fruits, Balinsky said he has no way of knowing how diocesan Catholic Charities and its subsidiaries will evolve over time.

"I can’t begin to imagine what the agency will look like 50 years from now, let alone 100 years," Balinsky remarked.

This does not worry him, however. Rather, he is confident diocesan Catholic Charities agencies will continue to adapt and respond to the needs of an ever-changing society.

"An important foundation of our work is our faith," he said. "Who knows what’s going to happen and what needs are going to emerge and how we are going to respond? If we are grounded in prayer and grounded in the principles of Catholic social teaching, somehow we will find a way to do our best to respond to what emerges."

Tags: Catholic Charities
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