Ministry Shattered in California Community: Power Struggle Breaks Apart Ecumenical Effort

Article excerpt

Whatever his intentions, Fresno Bishop John Steinbock has broken the heart of a compassionate community within this town of 100,000 in California's central farming region.

The broken heart was on display Sunday, Sept. 7, when tears flowed openly and without shame as Daughter of Charity Sr. Kenneth Quinn entered the city convention center to the celebratory sounds of the teen mariachi orchestra.

Catholic Charities of the Fresno diocese had insisted it--and not the center's governing board--controlled Visalia's Good News Center, an outreach to the poor that Quinn operated. The board yielded. Quinn and two other nuns have been removed by their order from ministry at the center as a result of the diocesan decision.

At a farewell prayer service held at the convention center, Quinn wrapped her arms around people, one after another, in a crowd of about 200. And wept. These were admirers and supporters from 13 different churches, 10 of them Protestant, and groups like the American Friends Service Committee, and families she had worked with.

The only Catholic priest present was retired 86-year-old Msgr. Joe Balker, who'd driven down from Fresno to the town he once served.

The Visalia (pronounced Vy-SAYlia) Good News Center was built in the early 1980s to serve the area's poorest people. Quinn became executive director in 1984.

Within two decades the center, now with a $500,000 annual budget, included a 32-unit shelter for women and children, a six-days-a-week hot lunch program, a five-days-a-week clinic, a legal aid program, counseling services, outreach galore and a pool of some 500 volunteers.

It is Quinn's monument. Or was.

The Good News Center, as it existed a month ago, had its origins and initial support in the social commitment, willing muscle and fundraising abilities of a few Catholic families. It broadened rapidly after its founding to become a citywide ecumenical endeavor. The city government itself provided spare buildings, and gave support wherever it could.

Not any more, said Mayor Jesus Gamboa at the celebration for the three departing Daughters of Charity--Quinn, Sr. Baptista Casper and Sr. Caridad Tatoyon. Gamboa told NCR the city has just made available an empty former police building as a health clinic setting for the new organization, Visalia Ecumenical Charities, quickly formed by the dazed community to pick up services for the poor the diocese is unlikely to be able to sustain.

The shattering of Visalia's single-minded ecumenical efforts for the poor seems to grow out of issues of control and ownership. "I hate to say it, this is my church," said Alica Cortes, "but this is about money. It's about financial control." Cortes, with her husband, Gilbert, has volunteered with the sisters for decades. The Corteses are among the earliest Daughters of Charity volunteers who have already shifted their volunteer energies to the new Visalia Ecumenical Charities.

The diocese

Steinbock announced last fall, when seven Catholic Charities personnel were laid off, that Catholic Charities is "nearly $1 million in debt." The agency board reported grant money was being returned because the diocese could not raise matching funds.

Here is the story as best it can be pieced together:

The Daughters of Charity in Los Altos Hills, Calif., declined to expand beyond their short faxed statement (see box). Individual sisters had been told not to comment to the media. At the convention center, one sister, with a smile, pulled an imaginary zipper across her lips.

Philip Traynor, executive director and a former member of the board of Catholic Charities, said that in the 1960s Fr. Roger Mahony, now cardinal of Los Angeles, asked then-Fresno Bishop (the late Cardinal) Timothy Manning to establish Catholic social services in Visalia.

"Manning invited the Daughters of Charity, and they came [to rural Farmersville]," said Traynor "In the '70s and '80s there were some financial problems with Charities because Mahony was very, very supportive of the United Farm Workers and most money was coming from large agricultural interests," said Traynor, "so they kind of cut us off. …