October 8, 2021
This month, Sr. Rita Mary Harwood, SND, joins Generative Spirits to reflect on more than 25 years working for the Diocese of Cleveland, where she initiated ministries to several historically marginalized groups, including the incarcerated, the LGBTQ community, migrant families and refugees.
Listen here and read a transcript below:
In August, Sr. Rita Mary retired from the Diocese, where she had most recently led the Secretariat for Parish Life and Development. Sr. Rita Mary has supported multiple ministries, including chairing Church in the City in 1994 and leading the Welcoming the Stranger committee, a group of professionals committed to the rights and needs of migrants and refugees--known as "people on the move." She began her work at the Diocese in 1995, with responsibilities for the parishes of the eight-county diocese and the offices that are in service to those parishes, as well as all the lay organizations and ethnic ministries of the diocese.
After joining Bishop Pilla’s staff in 1995, Sr. Rita Mary set out to initiate several ministries within the Diocese. The Diocesan Ministry to the Incarcerated and their families, the Gay and Lesbian Family Ministry, the expansion of the ministry to the migrant community and development of the Asian and African Catholic Ministry are all facilitated by Sr. Rita Mary.
Sr. Rita Mary served as a teacher, administrator and supervisor of schools before joining the staff at the Diocese of Cleveland. Sr. Rita Mary was Major Superior of the Sisters of Notre Dame for nine years.
We have gotten to know Sr. Rita Mary through the Welcoming the Stranger committee, and we are excited to share this conversation about her experience in ministry, her lifelong service and Cleveland’s immigrant community.
Conversation with Sr. Rita Mary Harwood, SND
(Season 2, Episode 7, Part 1)
Margaret Eigsti, senior program officer, and Rachel Drotar, Generative Spirit program coordinator, for the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, co-host the monthly Generative Spirits: Conversations with Catholic Sisters podcast.
Following is an edited transcript of their conversation with Sr. Rita Mary Harwood, SND.
Welcome to Generative Spirits: Conversations with Catholic Sisters, a Catholic sister podcast that explores how members of Northeast Ohio congregations respond to the science of the times in ways only sisters can.
Our guest today is Sister Rita Mary Harwood, a sister of Notre Dame. We talk about the work she has done in leading the Secretariat for Parish Life and Development at the Diocese of Cleveland, and how it has changed over the years. Sister Rita Mary has supported multiple ministries, including Chairing Church in the City in 1994. And, leading the Welcoming the Stranger committee, a group of professionals committed to the rights and needs of migrants and refugees.
She began her work at the diocese in 1995 with responsibilities for the parishes of the eight county diocese and the offices that are in service to those parishes, as well as all the lay organizations and ethnic ministries of the diocese.
We have gotten to know sister Rita Mary and her work through participation on the Welcoming the Stranger committee and we are excited to talk to her today about her experiences in this and so many other important ministries throughout the diocese.
For our first question, I would love if you could tell us a little bit about your ministerial journey that led you to your position at the diocese.
Sr. Rita Mary
Even as I look back, it's a rather interesting journey. Certainly not one that I ever thought I would be on. But here I am. I'm the oldest of four children. I have three younger brothers. We lived in East Cleveland until I was in the fourth grade. At that time, my mom and dad purchased their first home and they were so proud of that. It was on the west side of Cleveland in St. Coleman's parish. So we moved to West 85th Street. When I finished school at St. Coleman’s, I then went to St. Stephen's High School. I chose St. Stephen's because it was a commercial school very well known for preparing women. It was an all-girls school, particularly for secretarial-type jobs. Being the oldest of four brothers, I really never thought that I would go to college. So I knew I needed to get a good job when I finished high school.
It was during my senior year that we went to a retreat. I never thought about religious life prior to that. After graduation, I entered the Sisters of Notre Dame. And at that point, my reason for doing it was they were very, very kind, and very aware of the poor. They had a really special commitment to the education of the poor. I think what drew me was that and their spirit of community life.
So, when I entered, I expressed the hope that perhaps one day I could go to India, we had a mission in India, and I was very interested in becoming a nurse or a doctor. So when I began college, then my courses were really pretty directed into the science area. It was in my second year that India made the decision that they would no longer allow students to come into the country for medical purposes, mainly for education. And so I moved into the area of education and got my degree.
In 1973, I was assigned to St. Michael's school in Canton, Ohio, as the principal. I was there for six years and I loved it. At the end of that time, I was asked to supervise the schools that were being staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame. We had 70 elementary schools in eight different diocese. That was my work for the next three and a half years. And then I went to St. Boniface as the principal. I really wanted to be working in the inner city and love that I was there for two years. At the end of that time, I was assigned Provincial Superior of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon. We had 640 sisters in our province. I served two terms. And I must say, it was such a privilege to be able to spend time and your energy working with such wonderful women. Absolutely an overwhelmingly, beautiful experience for me. It was the happiest time of my life.
At the end of those nine years then, Bishop Pilla called me and asked me to join his staff at the diocese. It was a delightful experience as he was trying to explain to me what I would be doing. I said I don't know, but I would give it a very good try. So, that's where I have been as Secretariat for Parish Life and Development in the Diocese of Cleveland for the past 26 years, and they have been absolutely wonderful years. I found that so many of the experiences that I had in my life, both growing up as a child and a teenager, and then in my religious community really gave me a marvelous background for the work that I was asked to do. In that position, I had traveled to many parts of the world and had come to know people from many, many different cultures.
I always love hearing stories of how people found themselves either in their ministries or into religious life. And I love that yours includes the unexpected, you know, I never expected to join the sisters and my expectation was going into something that included the sciences. To say that there have been moments in your life that have led you there is just giving me more and more context for who you are and how you got that to be in this position. A lot of it makes sense, because in my experience with you, it's what is the challenge you're going to meet today? And how can we do so in a compassionate way? Your story really reflects that. So thank you so much for sharing that.
Sr. Rita Mary
You're very welcome. I think that's true. I was just saying to someone the other day, you know, so many times we go into something, thinking that we have to have the plan all set and know exactly where we're going. It’s so important to listen to how God is calling us. And that's revealed in a number of ways through the people that we're ministering with and just through the circumstances, what's happening. And the important thing is to be attuned to that—to listen.
With the Parish Life office, Sister Rita Mary, could you share what it is and why it's important to the diocese, because I know many people might not know exactly what the role of that office is.
Sr. Rita Mary
Sure, I'm laughing because I didn't understand it myself. Bishop Hickey organized the diocese into what was called a secretariat system. It's an organizational plan for the diocese. He divided the existing offices into categories. So there were all those offices dealing with education, all the Catholic charities. So education went into an education secretariat, Catholic charities became the Secretary for Health and Human Services, catechesis for religious formation and instruction, clergy and religious for the priests and deacons and religious sisters and brothers. And then, people explained to me if it didn't fit neatly into those categories, it went into the parish life secretary.
I laughed at that. The first meeting that we had, I said to my staff now, I think one of the things that we need to talk about and identify is what's unifying to us? What's going to help us to unify and to express a mission looking forward? It's the relationship of the all the different faith communities with us as a Catholic community. If I were to really try to describe the Parish Life Secretariat, I would say that really we're about the pastoral work of the church. We are concerned with the people, with being there with and for people and with and for the parish communities and the organizations. The offices of the secretariat would include missionary discipleship that used to be called evangelization, the ethnic ministries, we had an office for Hispanic and African American ministry, for the preparation of lay ecclesial ministers, the Office for the Protection of Children. As I mentioned, the interfaith and ecumenical ministry office, and youth, young adult and family ministry of three separate offices. And most recently, a new addition to the secretariat is the Office for Human Life. And then finally, the office for which I had the responsibility not only for the secretariat but for the Office for Parish Life.
What I think is at the very heart of who we are was that we collaborated, we worked together, not any one of us was behold, but we find found that planning and working together was very important to the realization of what are the needs of people? How can we respond? Ways in which we can be with people. How can we respond to the needs of our pastors and the staffs? What are particular ministries that respond to the needs as they occur? Over the years, we've developed a number of new ministries to respond to those needs. We looked at the lay organizations in the diocese and how we could accompany them and help them to achieve their goals. And most recently, the pastoral care of migrants and refugees and people on the move. So that's the work of the offices of the Parish Life Secretariat and the Parish Life Office.
When you share about how ministries were formed out of a need or how ministries were formed, specifically, for populations of people, I think a lot about the work that that I know you from and the work that I'm learning about in your time at the diocese. One of the one of the groups that I'm that I'm thinking about right now is Welcoming the Stranger. In my role at the foundation, I've been able to get to know you and get to know the people on that committee through Welcoming the Stranger. And I've always really loved the ways that you have identified the migrants and refugees as community members and as people that have incredible amounts of value to our communities. I've always really loved the way that you refer to them as people on the move. I think that it's really inclusive and really affirmative. What are those main ministries that you've been really involved in and proud of during your time at the diocese?
Sr. Rita Mary
There are there are really many of them. But, let's start by talking about that particular area of ministry. When I went to the diocese, on my job description there was one line that said the pastoral care of migrants, refugees and people on the move. I had no idea what that meant. I learned that the Holy Father in the year 1400 established the Pontifical Office for Migrants, Refugees and People on the Move. He did that because he was very concerned about the traders and explorers who were going out to various parts of the world and wanted them be accompanied by the church. He assigned priests and brothers and so forth to accompany those traders and explorers as they went out on the ships. The office in Rome is still is in existence. So that one line on my job description represented a ministry that started in 1400 and certainly had many different expressions at this time. I'll talk a little bit about those.
In 2000, the bishops of the United States wrote a letter entitled welcoming the stranger. It was written at that time because we were welcoming many people here to the United States, particularly people coming from Europe. The bishops felt that it was important for us as a church to reflect on how are we welcoming, how are we making people feel at home once they come here?
There were 10 of us from the diocese that went to that meeting in Wisconsin. When we came back, we formed a committee. We've met every month since the year 2000. First, talking about the refugee community at that time. It was people coming from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Then as time went on, people coming from Africa and then people coming from different parts of the world from the Mediterranean areas. It was a wonderful ministry. We worked with migration and refugee services out of Catholic Charities, who were responsible for the resettlement of the people coming into the country. We then took on the responsibility for pastoral care. What was it that we could do to help people to come into the community to feel at home to feel welcome in the church?
And so that was really the start. In 2005 when we were struggling with the migration situation and President Bush at that time said our immigration system is broken. We were seeing people coming from Central American countries and really struggling, many of them here without documentation. It was at that time that Bishop Pilla asked if we would really pay close attention to those people and find ways to work with them and to help. So, we expanded our committee. We identified three areas we really felt it was important for us to attend to. One was the education of all people, but particularly our parishes and our schools and our organizations on the needs of those coming here to this country.
The second was to advocate for the reform of our immigration system. The third area was to accompany and be with these people and to find ways to help them through this period of time. It was out of that invitation from the bishops in 2000 and from Bishop Pilla in 2005 that we really put tremendous effort into education, preparing presentations for our peers, community schools or any group that would invite us. We could bring migrants and refugees with us so they could explain their situation, help us all to see that we are, in fact, immigrant people. I can speak to that. My grandparents came from England and Ireland as immigrants and came into a country they didn't know and were very often welcomed and then not welcomed at times. So many of the situations of our ancestors are situations that people are experiencing now, which are causing them to look for a place that you can come home. The people on the move part of this I find very interesting, especially at this time. The People on the Move ministry would involve the circus workers or seafarers or those who are traveling.
We have a very unique ministry here in the diocese with a group called Cross Bearers for Christ. It is a bikers group who started the ministry, it must be 12 years ago, because they wanted to organize Catholic men and women who were bikers to match in the state and national parks during the summertime for bible study. They have belonged to a Christian association, but they wanted to really reflect on the scriptures from a Catholic point of view. And so they formed this organization, which now is across the country. They have a particular ministry. Those in our area here do street ministry with the homeless and those in prostitution, and have been a marvelous group of people—an example of the ministry of People on the Move. What it says is that the church is there with us, wherever we are. I think that's a beautiful ministry.
We did not have anyone in the ministry to seafarers. When I noticed the increase in the number of ships that are now coming through the St. Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes and here to Cleveland, I looked into the possibility of seeing if we couldn't revive the ministry to seafarers. I've spoken with one of our priests who's very interested. I'm hopeful that that will move forward.
I love that history of what it what it means people on the move, and how that continues to change. It's a universal, timeless definition
Sr. Rita Mary
And it's all over the world. I think that's absolutely fascinating. And when I thought about it, thinking about our own country, and thought about the names of the cities, along our west coast, in particular, that they're all named for the saints. And that was the influence of whomever was on that ship at that time. It's fun.
Hi, everyone. Thanks for listening to part 1 of 2 of our conversation with Sr. Rita Mary Harwood. Stay tuned for part 2, coming out October 22nd. We will talk about the other ministries she supported, including Church in the City and the collaboration that guided the many initiatives in Cleveland’s Diocese.
Part 2: Conversation with Sister Rita Mary Harwood, SND, continued
Welcome back to Generative Spirits: Conversations with Catholic sisters. This episode is part 2 of a conversation with Sr. Rita Mary Harwood, a sister of Notre Dame who shares about her time as the Secretariat for Parish Life and Development at the Diocese of Cleveland and the many ministries she helped support. We are excited to share more from this conversation and many ways her collaborative work has impacted those in need. Enjoy!
I know Welcoming the Stranger. As Rachel mentioned, we've so much enjoyed being part of that group. And, and a little bit later, I think we'll ask you about kind of where it's evolved to today. And because in 2005, I know, it was in a very different place, and has grown in amazing ways since that point. But, we'd love for you to share about some of the other ministries as well that you've been involved in. I feel like I always am learning about new ministries that you have been part of, you've been part of so many good initiatives at the diocese.
Sr. Rita Mary Harwood, SND
It's been really a beautiful time. I began by talking about the offices of the secretariat. I think what's very important to always remember the impact that group has. The staff works very closely together. That enriches whatever it is that we're doing, we're doing together. As I look back from the beginning of the time I began in 1995, the year before 1994, Bishop Pilla had asked me if I would facilitate the planning for the Church in the City initiative, which probably was one of the most exciting initiatives. I don't know what word I would use to describe what it was, but it moved. It was such a moving experience for me. But more importantly, it engaged the people of this diocese and community in what he said. I think people are still talking about today. It was an initiative where the bishop had written a pastoral letter about the impact of out migration on the urban areas of our diocese and community. And we identified three of those areas, Cleveland, Akron and Lorain, not only on the church, certainly, but the entire community. And it occurred particularly after the Second World War as people moved away. Our population, for example, when Cleveland went from in the 50s, and early 60s, from a million people to at that time, about 500,000. The population in the suburban areas was just booming. And what they caused then was a separation between people. And so this letter that the bishop wrote as the people of the diocese to really come together and reflect on ways that we might look at that, analyze it, understand it more fully, and then help to plan for the future. And there were four areas that we worked on.
The first was education, understanding what was happening and really getting the information out and looking to see, does this fit us? Can we identify this? The second was partnerships, forming partnerships between peoples in different areas of the diocese. Urban and suburban parishes coming together, or urban, suburban and rural parishes coming together. The third was development, redevelopment, to look at ways that we could look at some of the structures and the situations where we could have an influence and help to rebuild and renew. And then the final one was advocacy. I could give you many, many examples of some things that happened, but I was thinking about one the other day because I was at St. Augustine’s on [West] 14th Street. St. Augustine's and St. Noel's in Willoughby Hills had a partnership. And at that time, NOACA [Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency] was trying to figure out what to do with 14th Street as an entrance onto route 71. The people of the area on 14th Street, and especially the churches, were very concerned because the disruption of that area would really have impacted them quite seriously. In discussions with their partner parish, St. Noel, they decided together, that they would ask for a meeting with NOACA, and their meeting took place in Willoughby Hills. The people from NOACA were amazed when they got to the meeting, there were 500 people in Willoughby Hills concerned about the construction of highways on West 14th Street. Really a beautiful example of how people could come together. Bishop Pilla always used to say that when we come to the table, everyone has a gift to share. And everyone has a need that they want to fulfill. Nobody comes to the table poor, or rich. I think that's a beautiful concept.
In Church in the City then in 2001, the bishop wrote another letter, this one was called vibrant parish life, and it built on Church in the City. We had 130 partnerships out of Church in the City. And we had formed wonderful relationships between one another, some to greater extent than the others, certainly, but there were relationships happening. He said, you know, we're able to establish partnerships, over 25 or 30 miles, it would be good for us to look to see if we could establish relationships with the parishes who are two miles down the road that we would collaborate, that we would work together. That began another very fruitful and exciting process here in the diocese, again, engaging the people of the whole diocese. We are the church together. And so we met in small groups and looked at our strengths as parish communities, what were our strengths? And what were areas of gap? Where did we need help? We did that first in our own parish and then we got together with neighboring parishes. Then we got together as whole regions. There was great excitement in that.
I think one of the things that from what you've said, especially when you talked about how Bishop Pilla really saw collaboration work as when people come together, no one is rich, no one is poor. People are together. And that's the most important thing that we can share. And we can be present to one another in a in an equal way. I think that that's often lost in collaborative work. When I think about the ways that people come together, it's often I have something to give you because you don't have it. But, that felt a lot more innovative from his perspective. It kind of reminds me of the loaves and fishes story, that everyone is being fed, everyone is really giving of themselves so that we can all move forward. I'm also wondering, are there ministries that you've been involved with that have been more of an accompaniment role, rather than leadership or maybe ministries that you're lesser known for, per se?
Sr. Rita Mary
I think that one of the main areas of focus in the ministry in the Secretariat for Parish Life was to respond to the needs of people, as we became aware of those. And just a little story, Bishop Quinn, gathered a group of us together, would have been 1996. There were two deacons who at that time were working at one at the Grafton correctional and the other at the county jail here in Cuyahoga County. And he asked if, at the end, after the explanation, he asked if there was anyone that would be willing to take on that ministry. I walked away from the ministry or from that meeting thinking I hope somebody offers. I met him about five weeks later and asked him that question with the offer. And he said, no, nobody did. And I said, oh, that's too bad because I think it's an important ministry. We don't think too much about that do we? No, we don't but what's wrong with you? What do you mean? He said, well, why don't you take it on? I said I don't know anything about prisons and jails. He said, well, you could learn. Get a group together, make a committee, you're good at that, and form a ministry to the incarcerated. That was one of the most beautiful areas of ministry that really I believe we have developed here in this diocese. We now have 450 people who are engaged in prison ministry, who are present in all the state institutions and then most of the county institutions. And the ministry has spread not only to those who are incarcerated, but now to their families. Also, we have the leaf ministry for the families. I believe that that's been done by people. It's been done by our people. These are ordinary people who stepped forward and said, I want to do that. I think God is calling me to that. And thank God for each one of them.
Just as an example, during this pandemic, the Grafton Correctional Institution, the deputy warden called right in March and said sister is there something the men could be doing. They've made 49,000 masks, first, for Catholic Charities, all their employees and other people who came to their places, their agencies, and then the children in some of our schools. And then they grew a vegetable garden. I just went this morning to pick up the vegetables and deliver them to the Cosgrove Center where they supplied vegetables. And this is a beautiful story. Catholic Charities named them as the Volunteer of the Year recipients, the men at the Grafton Correctional Institution. [They] went out to distribute certificates to each and every man who was on that garden crew and that mask making crew.
Sr. Rita Mary
At the end, the deputy warden said, gentlemen, is there anyone who would like to say something, and five or six of them got up when they came in they talked about what the program meant to them. But the final man was an African American gentleman, very tall and thin. And he said, I went out to the garden every day. And he said, it was a hard work. It was really hard work. I'm not a gardener, but I thought I'm feeding people. I'm feeding people, this is important. And he said about three weeks after we started sending the vegetables to the Cosgrove Center, I got a note from my niece. And she said, uncle don't worry about us. Every week, I go to the Cosgrove center, and they give me a big bag of fresh vegetables for the family. And the man said, I realized from Grafton, I was feeding my family.
I think another area is we have developed a ministry to the lesbian and gay community and to their family members. I was with a group of the family members two weeks ago and one of the women said to me, sister, I don't know how I would have managed if it hadn't been for this group of people that I've met with now, once a month, on a Sunday, for the last five or six years. This group has been such a blessing to me. And the men and women in the prisons and in the jails, when those volunteers come in to conduct the prayer service, or just a one on one, listening, or whatever it is, it says to them, somebody cares. People haven't forgotten that we're here.
You mentioning those ministries reminds me of how you got into the sisterhood, you know, having maybe no experience in a certain area, but someone saying, I think that you would be good with this. I think that you would rise to this challenge and really be a person that can be a presence for folks, even when you didn't think that you had the experience to do so. And I think that it just speaks to, again, an opportunity for people to see ways to become involved either in their faith communities or beyond that, you know, they don't need a certain degree or a certain training to be present to people.
Sr. Rita Mary
I think that's so true. It's absolutely true. I think so many times we think we can't do it. But these are very human things. And we're all very human persons. So when the opportunity is there, God provides the grace, whatever it is that we need in order to respond. I've seen that over and over. We were talking about Welcoming the Stranger, the work of that group. I was talking about 2005. I keep emphasizing that these are not things I'm doing alone. I get a committee together. And boy, there are people on that committee who know far more about it than I do. And they're able to contribute and to build. When we saw that people from our area were being deported and we saw what that was doing to the families, that committee said, we have to do something about this. We've got to help those people, those who are being deported and the families that are being left behind. We developed a whole resource called the Parish Companion Program, where we would accompany people out in the community. We would accompany other people as they went through this process. When we were engaged in the raid that took place a number of years ago that took place in West Salem and also in the Sandusky area, we realized that we were there but we didn't know what to do. We came back and said, we've got to learn what to do. We have to train people. We're all praying that we never need it, but we have a Raid Response committee. I think that's who we are as disciples. I was saying the other day to the Advisory Committee for Prison Ministry that Father Snyder just said something very interesting to me. He said, you know, sometimes people are engaged in things and they think that they're volunteers, but they're not really volunteers. They're disciples. The disciples that God is sending out into the community.
I love that reframing. I think all these stories you've shared in your perspective really show how, and as Rachel mentioned, to how we each have the power within us to be disciples and to recognize needs and respond and that it's more about the willingness to respond and be present.
Sr. Rita Mary
To go out into the deep.
Yes, to go out into the deep, which can be a little scary.
I think about your work has been supporting and advocating for and welcoming so many different populations who are touched by the Catholic Church. And I think all these stories you've told reflect that. I'm wondering, what is your hope for how the diocese and the Catholic Church more broadly, can listen to and invite participation by all of these diverse members?
Sr. Rita Mary
I'm very excited about Pope Francis, and what he is calling us to and the ways he's providing for us to move forward. He has just made a change in a plan that I am finding so exciting. The next synod, which is the gathering of the bishops that came out of the Second Vatican Council. Each of the holy fathers have called synods on varying topics. And this synod is on synodality, which is a word probably none of us have ever heard. The origins of that word in Greek means to walk together on a road. And the Holy Father had called the Synod on Synodality. And then, oh, maybe six to nine months ago said he was going to add an additional year to the planning for that synod because he said, we're talking about the church, and the church is all the people of God, who we are as a church. Sometimes we think of the church just as the bishops or the Pope or priests or deacons. The church is all of us. And I think the Holy Father is emphasizing that, in doing this, he said, because the synod will make decisions that affect all the people. It's important that in the beginning that people have the opportunity to reflect on how is the spirit calling? How is God calling us? What is it that we see as needs and gifts, etc.? So he added another year to the synod preparation, and that synod preparation begins at the parish level and then goes to the diocesan level where people will be asked a series of questions to really reflect on what are the needs of today? How can we respond to what we see happening and just think about that in relation to the time that we're in right now? What our needs are? Then, they will summarize at the parish level that will go to the diocesan level where the diocese will be responsible for bringing all that together, that then we'll go to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The second phase is continental. So the diocese from a continent will get together, bring all that rich consultation together. And the third phase then is the synod that will take place in Rome.
That reflects so strongly what has been a part of our life here in this diocese. In 1978, Bishop Hickey wrote a letter to the diocese on shared responsibility that came out of the Second Vatican Council where the council spoke of the role of the laity in the church. Bishop Hickey then wrote a letter to the people of this diocese on shared responsibility, which was followed up in the early '80s with the process that was called vision and goals, where we were asked as a diocese and the consultation was across the entire eight county diocese, to identify what we felt were the major priorities for the Diocese of Cleveland. For the next years, we identified celebrating, evangelizing, educating, participating and caring as those five major areas that we needed to focus on as a church. That went all through the 90s until the Church in the City. Those were consultative, collaborative synods. I was talking to someone the other day, and he said to me, the concept of synod calling all the people together, getting their input, planning together, working together, that's in the blood of the Diocese of Cleveland. That's what I pray for going forward.
One important thing that I heard you say, one of many that I heard you say was, it gives an opportunity for individuals that may or may not feel heard within a larger institution, to feel as though their voices can not just be listened to, but really be carried to the heads, and the heads and the heads and so on. So that folks can feel like when I do speak my mind and tell how I'm feeling or how involved I feel like I can be in these conversations. Often we feel like we are most heard on an individual level, and most heard in a way that says I'm going to talk to the people that understand me the most and feel like they can hear me and that affirmation can happen. But it seems like you're urging people and you trust the process enough that this can be a way for people's voices to be heard on a much larger level for that kind of change within the institution.
Sr. Rita Mary
Right. That's correct. And I think that's so important.
That's really exciting.
Sr. Rita Mary
It is exciting. I find it very, very exciting. I was at a gathering a couple weeks ago and it was so moving for me to hear the people that were at that gathering reflect on their experience related to exactly what you have said. Being part of, being heard, being able to respond in a way that is building up the community, in a way that's expressing the love and care we have for one another. I think that's so important. That's who we are as a church.
I am really inspired and motivated by the faith that you have. In a way that the institution is made up of people, as made up of individuals that really believe in it. It's always inspiring to hear you talk that way. Because you are such a faithful person, and you are a person that connects with people on individual levels and sees the value of everyone being included. You mentioned so many important ministries earlier in our conversation. As I'm looking at the time, I want to really give folks some sort of way to get involved in those ministries. I'm wondering how someone could get involved or support those ministries if they're interested.
Sr. Rita Mary
I would be very glad to reflect on that. I think there are many ways to be involved. I think it takes effort. If it doesn't succeed the first time, then you keep trying. I mentioned the offices of the Secretariat and I'm just going to touch on a couple. Take missionary discipleship. Miguel Chavez is the director of that office. He has so many programs going now in different parishes that are helping people to look at who they are, to identify their gifts, to look at the church and see ways to participate. One thing that I would suggest is get yourself involved in something at the parish level. Get yourself on a committee. Get yourself into a program where there's going to be opportunity to reach out farther. I'm looking at the Protection of Children program. We have educated over 160,000 people in the protection of children. Most of those people are volunteers. They're volunteering in a number of programs and ways in their parishes and their areas. There are all kinds of ways that they're volunteering. The facilitators who are doing all of their training are all volunteers and there are over 100 of them. Look at youth and young adult ministry. Look at all the people who are involved in, and they're not volunteers remember they’re disciples, youth programs. Look at marriage and family and opportunities for mentoring new couples who are planning marriage or doing training or just being a companion. There are lots of opportunities there. We have eight new candidates in the Lay Ecclesial Ministry Program this year. That's a marvelous program. If you're feeling drawn to ministry in the church, look at that program.
There's no way that we what we have done in the church over these last 26 years that I know of that we could have done that other than with the involvement of the broader church. People are involved and together we’re the church. When we get involved and begin to help others, we find tremendous deep meaning in our own lives. So I think about, for example, the Afghanistan situation. People who are coming here, how can you help? What can you do to help them? Could you be a mentor? Could you help them set up an apartment? Do you have some extra things you don't need that you could give them? There's the way of getting involved by putting your physical body where the need is, but there's also the way to get involved because some of us are not able. Some of us have other ways of being able to help.
I want to talk about the Immigrant Assistance Fund that we've established over the last year and a half. It came out of a conversation that I had with Rita and Peter Carfagna. I was talking about the immigrants and the need for bonds for people who were in detention or filing fees for green cards or moving through the process towards citizenship. And they said to me, if you ever need any help, just let us know. I did that and they established a fund, the Immigrant Assistance Fund, which has now made it possible for us to provide assistance for many, many of the migrants, the immigrants, who are seeking to follow a path toward citizenship. It's impossible for people who are struggling just to live and to make a living for their family to be covering all those fees and we've been able to help.
So I think there are many ways to be involved and to be a part of this whole initiative of being the church.
Thank you so much for naming those. It gives me a lot of hope for not just folks that have been involved in the church for a number of years, but to respond to the evolutions of the church. I think that sisters in general, and then your work specifically, that sisters have been a way to see what the needs are and to respond to those. But it's another thing also, for folks that are young adults in the church to see that there is a way to be involved in a way that highlights their gifts. And, also acknowledges that the church is evolving, especially on the on the individual person-to-person level.
Sr. Rita Mary
Absolutely. I would agree with you fully. There are so many avenues that you can follow. I think that sometimes we think there's not that much that I can do or that I can give. But I think that, it's what Bishop Pilla said, when we come to the table, we all come with gifts. And when we come to the table, we also come with needs. So many times I find that it's in sharing the gifts that you have that you so enrich yourself.
I remember the gentlemen who started a prison ministry. It took them a while. He was very hesitant about volunteering, but finally he did. He went in the first day and he was doing a little Bible study with a group of guys. And he said, I got so scared. He said my knees were kind of knocking against each other and I just prayed, oh, please, God help me. He said he felt such a peacefulness come over him. He said, you know sister, when I was walking out of that jail that night, I think I was four feet above the ground. I just could not believe the feeling that I had. And I met him 10 years later and I said to him, Bob, are you still walking four feet above the ground? He said, absolutely. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever done in my life. So I think that's true in every age. I would really encourage, especially young adults. This is a calling. It's a need. And you have so much to share.
Thank you, Sister Rita Mary for that call to action for others and all of your inspiring words. I really appreciate you sharing your stories and your journey. And the many ways that I think we can respond to the social mission of the church with our own gifts. I'm always inspired after I talk with you and more motivated to do my work and to do more. I really appreciate that. That personal gift I think that you give all the people that you work with and meet on a daily basis. Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us and share about your work at the diocese and beyond, and just for all of your service to the diocese over so many years. You've touched so many people.
Sr. Rita Mary
Well, thank you very much, that is very kind of you. But I want to say something about the Sisters of Charity Foundation [of Cleveland]. Since I started all these areas of ministry, I have had such a beautiful relationship with the Sisters of Charity Foundation. We would not have been able to do what we were able to do in Church in the City if it had not been for their support. We would not have ever been able to do what we were able to do without the support of the Sisters of Charity Foundation in prison ministry. You really helped us to develop that whole formation program, to provide the resources that we needed to begin to get people into the jails and prisons of our area. You have provided beyond any other group that I know of to support the ministry and then the ministry to the migrant community. So I cannot say enough about the work of the foundation and the blessing that it's been. We can say what we've done at the diocese what we've done with the groups is so wonderful. It has been the gift that the Sisters of Charity Foundation has provided for us that's made that possible. And so I want you to know, and I want anyone who listens to know our gratitude for that.
Thank you sincerely Sr. Rita Mary, it is a real gift to be able to carry on the legacy of the people that came before us. And to do so in honoring the work that they did. I'm really glad that we get to collaborate in that way and hear the stories of how those ministries came to be both at the foundation and in your work at the diocese and beyond. Thanks again so much for being here. And we appreciate your time today.
Sr. Rita Mary
Thank you. It's been good.