Local Parishes, Schools, and Social Services Spread Catholic Footprint Through Tireless Outreach


By Tony DeGol

Pope Francis once said, “When you forget yourself and think of others, this is love!” 

As many of our friends and neighbors struggle during this pandemic, parishes, Catholic schools, and Catholic social service agencies in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown are spreading the love by answering the call to serve.  

Catholic Charities of Altoona-Johnstown and the diocese’s Fulton County Catholic Mission have revealed the extent of their outreach to others in the challenging year of 2020. 

Through various Emergency Financial Assistance funding sources, Catholic Charities assisted 502 households (1,345 members) with needs such as utilities, heating oil, rent, medication, and transportation. Additionally, the agency aided 297 families (803 members) with federal Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP) funds that allow for assistance with utilities and heating fuel. 

According to Catholic Charities Systems Coordinator Dawn Popovich, the agency received CARES funding from EFSP and the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG).  

“These funds are to help households impacted by COVID with their rent or utility bills,” she said. “With the CARES funding, we assisted 220 households (640 members) with a utility bill and five households (23 members) with rent in 2020. 

The pandemic has impacted the way Catholic Charities offices are operating.  

“For safety reasons, the offices are currently closed for in person contact,” Popvich explained. “However, staff are working in the office answering phone calls and providing assistance to clients in need.  All intakes are conducted by phone with paperwork being emailed or faxed.  At this time, Johnstown and Altoona Catholic Charities are one of the few social service agencies in our counties that are working in-office and available every day to assist persons in need.  We currently do a lot of advocacy and referral work because so many agencies are closed and/or working from home – including county, state and federal offices.”   

The 2020 Catholic Charities Christmas programs assisted 100 children in the Altoona/State College region and 187 children in the Johnstown area. 

The Christmas program at the Fulton County Catholic Mission was equally impressive. 

According to Mission Director Sister Martha Burbulla, CCW, 275 families with about 500 children were provided Christmas gifts.  

Like Catholic Charities, the Fulton County Catholic Mission serves people of all faiths. 

In 2020, the Mission helped about 250 families with fuel and electric utility assistance, Sister Martha reported. School supplies were provided to 100 families with about 250 children, and about 150 young people received warm winter coats. 

Fulton County is a region of the diocese that is surely not considered wealthy.  

“By means of contributions to the Mission from Catholic Charities, a generous contribution placed at a fuel company by the State College Saint Vincent de Paul Society, regular contributions from local protestant churches and individuals, and serving as an agent to distribute federal and state assistance funds, the Mission is able to assist many people in need,” Sister Martha noted. 

As if the impact of the Fulton County Catholic Mission and Catholic Charities is not impressive enough, further outreach from the Catholic Church is also supporting and enriching the community.  

The Sacred Heart Food Pantry at Sacred Heart Parish in Altoona is also proving to be a lifeline in these difficult times.  

Prior to the pandemic, only residents of Altoona’s Sixth Ward were eligible to receive food from the pantry, said the Very Reverend Lubomir Strecok, VF, Pastor of Sacred Heart. Since the pandemic, the pantry is open to anyone. 

Last month alone, the pantry provided food to 99 individuals from 30 households, Father Strecok reported. Of those served in January alone, 14 were new clients from three households.  

The pantry has been feeding community residents since 1985. Volunteers operate the pantry every Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. 

Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Johnstown continued its tradition of outreach last year. 

Among the highlights were the collection and distribution of 150 coats, more than 200 Thanksgiving dinner boxes for families, and gifts and more food for 60 Angel Tree families. 

“As a Church, we respond to the love of our most merciful God by sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and serving in our community with the gifts God has given each one of us,” commented Anne DiFrancesco, OMOS Director of Pastoral Affairs. 

The parish is also nurturing the faithful with a new virtual ministry. 

“Many who are homebound or isolated due to the coronavirus were disconnected from others,” DiFrancesco relayed. “Seeing this need, we developed virtual programming through Facebook, YouTube, and our website. Showing our Sunday Mass was essential to our parish to stay connected. We realized that our virtual programming was attracting people from the community and from other cities and states. To provide an outlet where people can have hope and know that others care for them was our greatest gift through this pandemic. 

Saint Michael School in Loretto is representative of every Catholic school in the diocese through its commitment to service. 

Among the many initiatives at Saint Michael are the regular collections of food and personal hygiene items for the Dorothy Day Outreach Center in Loretto, and the filling of fire hats and boots with coins for the Loretto Volunteer Fire Company, said Principal Rhonda Seymour.

At Our Lady of Victory Catholic School in State College, service is second-nature. Perhaps the school’s most recognizable effort is the Jared Box Project, which aims to lift the spirits of children in the hospital. The boxes are filled with the “gift of play” and are given to young patients in emergency rooms, hospital rooms, surgical centers, and clinics. 

During Catholic Schools Week 2021, which just concluded, OLV School resembled the Heinz ketchup factory as families collected condiments to be donated to the State College Food Bank.

Speaking of collecting food, students at Divine Mercy Catholic Academy in Johnstown recently wrapped up a food collection for area food pantries. The East and West campuses donated more than 2,100 items.

Indeed, the love about which Pope Francis spoke is evident in Altoona-Johnstown and proof of the wide Catholic footprint throughout the eight-county region.  

“Love and charity are service, helping others, serving others,” the Holy Father went on to say. “There are many people who spend their lives in this way, in the service of others.” 

One need look no further than our diocese for proof of that. 

[Photos: (Top) Divine Mercy Catholic Academy students show off some of the food items they collected for area food banks; (First Inset) Sister Martha Burbulla, CCW, and her team of elves stand beside the mounds of items collected for the Mission’s 2020 Christmas program; (Second Inset) Barbara Gerhart (left) and Lucille Parker stack the shelves of the Sacred Heart Food Pantry prior to the pandemic; (Third Inset) Our Lady of Victory Catholic School youngster shows off a Jared Box.]