A ministry of nourishment

Fall 2011 Red Cloud Country

Walking into the parish hall at Christ the King Church in Porcupine, South Dakota, Hope Villella pauses and smiles. In front of her are familiar faces conversing over coffee and treats after Sunday Mass. Within moments, she’s engaged in a whirlwind of conversation. Bill White asks if she has the newest version of the joint prayer he’s been crafting with the church’s sister parish, gently reminding her it needs to be posted for approval by the church. Another parishioner mentions a grandchild that needs to be baptized. Still another says that a group of parishioners were talking about the needs of the parish community.

“We need to get a shed,” Donna Eagle Bull says, explaining that the basement space where they’ve been gathering to do yoga is cluttered with gardening equipment.

“This is what we’re all about,” Villella notes, saying her good-byes to the group before making the 20-minute drive to St. Agnes Church in Manderson. “We gather, we do the work of God and try to improve our church. We support each other. And most important, we feed each other. I think that is at the heart of what it means to be Catholic everywhere…but especially here. We feed each other.”

Villella is part of a growing team of lay leaders, Lakota and non-Lakota, who are present daily in Red Cloud’s six active churches. But their work extends beyond the walls of these spiritual places, manifesting across the sacred lands of the reservation.

Fr. Steve Sanford, S.J., pastoral coordinator at Red Cloud Indian School, says these leaders of the Church are instrumental in—and necessary to—ensuring the more than 800 families served are met with the support they may need and the spiritual nourishment they desire. With a shortage of priests on the reservation, “The Church allows us to place a lay leader in our churches for pastoral and administrative ministry,” explains Fr. Sanford. “This person works in collaboration with myself, our Jesuit priests at Red Cloud and other laypeople to provide pastoral and sacramental care for the parishioners.”

Fr. Sanford says in many ways the leadership roles that people like Villella, Charles McGaa and David Rooks ’74 are taking on strengthen the local church, as it invites members to live and share Christ’s message with others.

“I feel particularly positive about the leadership of Charles McGaa,” he says. “He’s celebrating his 21st year of ministry at Sacred Heart Church in Pine Ridge. As the first Lakota parish life coordinator of Sacred Heart, he is a shining example of our ministry in action…of a sustainable model of parish ministry that addresses the reality that there is a shortage of priests while also empowering Lakota people to develop as leaders of the church.”

Villella, who currently serves as an interim parish life coordinator at Christ the King and St. Agnes, acknowledges being without a resident priest has its challenges, but admires the way local Lakota leadership continues to emerge. Recently, for example, a parishioner who was encouraged by Fr. Phil Cooke, S.J., former pastor, began an Alcoholics Anonymous group in Porcupine.

“He’s committed to AA. The result is a successful, well-attended and internationally-recognized group now embarking on its second year,” she says. “The Lakota laypeople I work with are all phenomenal leaders.”

Over the past year, Deb Iron Cloud ’86 and Joyce Tibbitts, both parish coordinators, have organized a grief and healing retreat and a codependency retreat. They also assisted in bringing Homeboys Industries, a group of former gang members from Los Angeles, to the reservation to speak with kids about getting on—and staying on—a good path. A new collaboration with Icimani Ya Wasté Recovery Center on the Rosebud Reservation will bring staff to Pine Ridge for a family recovery workshop developed in tandem with the Betty Ford Clinic.

“Joyce is a whiz with computers, and Deb is the queen of networking,” Villella says, finally taking a seat after a busy Sunday afternoon. “These women are the cogs in the wheel of parish ministry.

“Some of our ministries are more attention-grabbing than others, but we also spend a lot of our time washing linens, updating bulletins and figuring out where in the budget to find the money to fix that broken board in the deck,” she says.

“It may not be glamorous to talk about, but it’s just as valuable because it makes it possible for all of us to gather as a community for Mass…to be fed with the Bread of Life.”

“It’s that nourishment that makes all the other ways we feed one another possible.”