By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
As the Church universal celebrates the Year of Mercy, the local Catholic Charities director spoke about the agency’s mission of mercy.
And, as the Church in the United States recently observed the Fortnight for Freedom, she lamented how Catholic Charities has been prohibited from continuing part of its mission.
Catherine Loeffler was looking back over the 25 years she has been executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Worcester. She tells the story in words and pictures, a story that predates her, a story she trusts will continue beyond her.
She leaves Monday for what she insists is not retirement, but “repurposing” of her “life’s passions.” Tuesday Judith A. Zeh, assistant director since 2012, becomes interim executive director.
“When I came on April 1, 1991, President (Barack) Obama was at Harvard Law School as a student,” Ms. Loeffler recalled. “George Bush the first was president. John Paul II was pope. And Timothy J. Harrington was bishop. And Cardinal (Bernard F.) Law was cardinal archbishop of Boston.
“I was working at Boston Catholic Charities. I left there on my last day of work – Good Friday,” though the agency was closed that day. “I started here on Easter Monday.”
She recalled Cardinal Law telling Bishop Harrington, “You stole her,” in reference to her move to Worcester from being regional director of Merrimack Valley Catholic Charities.
“No, I promoted her,” replied Bishop Harrington.
He took pride in being a pioneer, Ms. Loeffler said; she was the first woman director of Catholic Charities in New England. Women directed Catholic Charities in some other dioceses in the nation.
In the 1980s diocesan directors of Catholic Charities were predominantly priests, she said. In the 1990s there was a shift to lay men and women and women religious filling the position, until they outnumbered the priests.
In the 1960s and early 1970s bishops had sent priests to study social work, she said. The priests then worked for Catholic Charities and eventually became directors.
Ms. Loeffler said at least three of the Worcester diocesan Catholic Charities directors who preceded her got their master’s in social work from Boston College School of Social Work: Bishop Harrington, Msgr. Leo J. Battista and Msgr. Edmond T. Tinsley. She wasn’t sure if the first director, Msgr. David C. Sullivan, had an MSW.
“Then the priest-directors of Catholic Charities would become auxiliary bishops, which happened with Bishop Harrington,” Ms. Loeffler continued. “Then priests weren’t being sent to social work school.”
The laity’s gifts were recognized, she said. They had education and experience in social work. Some moved up within Catholic Charities, others came from social service careers elsewhere. Most priests didn’t have that broader background; they brought instead their experiences of priestly ministry, Ms. Loeffler said. The gifts of both were helpful.
In the Worcester Diocese, Msgr. Tinsley remained treasurer of Catholic Charties’ board after she succeeded him as director.
“He brought his wisdom and his intimate knowledge of the diocese. And yet he understood I was the diocesan director and respected me and what I was able to bring.”
She said there were priests on staff when she came – Father Philip D. McNamara (now retired) Father Anthony Dai (now deceased) and Jesuit Father Joseph J. Bruce (who went on to other ministry).
“I’m here 25 years, but there are a number of people who were here when I came and will be here after I leave,” Ms. Loeffler said. “I think that speaks to the passion they have for the mission of Catholic Charities. It’s basically carrying out the corporal works of mercy in the modern world.”
Pope Francis, who called for this year to be a jubilee year focused on mercy, has highlighted for the world the work Catholic Charities has been doing for centuries, she said.
“Catholic Charities considers its founding in the 1700s with the arrival of the Ursuline Sisters to New Orleans,” she explained. “They carried out the corporal works of mercy down there, and then that spread across the country.”
Pope Francis, “heightened people’s awareness of corporal works of mercy, which our local Catholic Charities has carried out for the last 66 years.”
One thing that has changed over those years is how the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has responded to same-sex couples seeking to be foster or adoptive parents, Ms. Loeffler said. And that has changed what Catholic Charities does.
In the 1980s Massachusetts did not allow same-sex couples to even be foster parents, she said. In the 1990s the Commonwealth started allowing them to foster and adopt children, a policy still in place.
In the Worcester Diocese, Catholic Charities sought to be faithful to Church teaching and continue adoption services by telling the state that same-sex couples seeking to adopt would be better served by another agency, Ms. Loeffler said.
“Because we had good professional working relationships with people working in the state system, we were able to do that for about 10 years,” she said.
In 2005 the Boston Globe reported that Catholic Charities in the Boston Archdiocese was helping same-sex couples with adoptions, she said.
“It went from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts saying gays cannot be foster or adoptive parents to saying that if Catholic Chartities did not do gay adoptions, the Commonwealth would revoke its contract with Catholic Charities,” Ms. Loeffler said.
The Massachusetts bishops refused to have Catholic Charities participate in same-sex adoptions, which the Commonwealth saw as discrimination, she said. Catholic Charities felt the Commonwealth was violating the agency’s religious liberty to revoke the contract.
“What really saddens me is that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in revoking its contract with Catholic Charities, lost an opportunity to find more faith-filled families for the Commonwealth’s most abused and neglected children, in the last 10 years and in future decades,” Ms. Loeffler said.
Adopting such children takes extra effort, and faith buoys up such efforts, she explained. Catholic Charities had a network of faith-filled people and had placed more than 2,000 children in adoptive families since the 1950s, she said.
Is there anything Catholics can do about this?
“I always have some hope, but over the last decade that hope has diminished in this area,” Ms. Loeffler replied. Ideological pendulums swing to the right and left and return to the center, but she’s not convinced this one will ever get to the point where Catholic Charities can again provide adoption services, she said.
But she said Catholic Charities has not had other religious freedom challenges recently.
Asked whether the agency, which receives federal and state funding, is allowed to evangelize, she said, “I think that people are positively moved by the welcome that we provide when they come in our doors, and that has its underpinnng from our mission and the fact that we are Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Worcester.”
Catholic Charities welcomes people no matter what their faith, if any, she said.
“A phrase that Catholic Charities uses around the country is that we serve people not because they’re Catholic, but because we’re Catholic,” she said. She said staff members live out the mission with competence and compassion.
One thing that hasn’t changed in her 25 years here is “the commitment of staff to provide a welcome to people in need,” she said. She gave the example of homecare service to elders.
That has grown in numbers of elders served and numbers of hours they are given, she said. Funding diminished at one point costing the state more money, as elders were placed in nursing homes instead, and ended up on Medicaid, she said. So funding for homemaker programs was increased.
Volunteers also serve. Ms. Loeffler said Catholic Charities will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bishop’s Thanksgiving Dinner this November. Some volunteers have helped with this free meal for decades, and some now bring their children and grandchildren to help.