From time to time, Courier articles have profiled people who journeyed to other parts of the United States, as well as Asia, Africa and Latin America, to assist the rural and urban poor. Yet there are also needs in the Diocese of Rochester — a fact recognized by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who run a program involving local and out-of-state volunteers.
The SSJ Volunteer Corps, begun in 1996, “includes the experience of community and prayer, service and reflection on that service,” said Sister Donna Del Santo, director, who co-founded the Volunteer Corps along with Sister Marilyn Pray. The program has been based for the past seven years at Rochester’s Holy Family Convent, where groups and individuals of high-school, college and young-adult ages stay while fulfilling their service ministry.
Most Volunteer Corps work is performed in Rochester’s inner city. However, the geography was a bit more spread out June 18-25 for a youth group of nine teens and four adults from St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Pocahontas, Ark.
The group worked for one day at St. Peter’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen in Rochester. The next day it was off to Perkinsville, Steuben County, where volunteers did renovation duty at Kennedy House — a former convent that now serves as a retreat center. The group also performed chores that day at area homes, and picked 32 quarts of strawberries that they delivered to elderly and homebound residents.
Another day was spent in Sodus, Wayne County, where the group replaced windows at La Casa, a recently opened center that provides temporary transitional housing for migrant farm workers. La Casa is an initiative of diocesan Catholic Charities.
Late-week service visits were logged in Rochester at Bethany House, a food cupboard and temporary shelter for women and their children; and St. Martin’s Place, where free meals are served to those in need. The week concluded with some leisure time — a visit to Niagara Falls.
SSJ Volunteer Corps operates year-round. Service hitches normally last a few days to a week, although some people stay for a month or even longer. Volunteers are typically local groups who spend a weekend, or people from such locales as Wisconsin and Montana who come for a week. Sister Del Santo noted that the out-of-staters do their own fundraising to cover travel expenses.
The good works of the Volunteer Corps were highlighted in the July 3 bulletin for Holy Family Parish, where Perkinsville’s Kennedy House is located. An article noted that the Arkansas group left behind “a number of people whose lives were enriched by the generosity and enthusiasm of these young people putting their faith into action in such a special way.”
Service is performed against a spiritual backdrop provided by Holy Family’s convent, where Sister Del Santo resides with other Sisters of St. Joseph who join the participants for work, meals and prayer. Each day contains ample opportunity for group prayer and reflection. Sister Del Santo said the overall experience has often influenced the future career and vocational plans of participants.
“The big thing is to create an environment for discernment. What is God calling each of us to?” said Sister Del Santo, who also serves as vocations director for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester. She said that the call may not necessarily be to the religious life, “but it’s about leading a purposeful life. Our call is also to be responsive to the needs of our neighbor. How do we not only respond, but what happens to us when we do respond?”
Catholic social teaching is heavily integrated into this reflection. Sister Del Santo said the key is not simply to help the poor, but also to focus on the root causes of poverty.
“People, I think, are hungry to serve. The real work is the reflective process,” Sister Del Santo said. “We need to look at not only why are we going to the soup kitchen, but why are people hungry — asking the harder question.”