Montague Catholic Social Ministries: A Look Back
By Rev. Stanley J. Aksamit
In October 1993 the Co-Pastors of St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Anne parishes, Turners Falls, and Sacred Heart parish, Greenfield [currently joined into the parish of Our Lady of Peace], Rev. Roland Renaud and Rev. Stanley Aksamit, wrote to the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Sisters of Providence, asking if they would like to begin a ministry of presence in downtown Turners Falls, with residence in St. Anne’s Rectory.
The Sisters of St. Joseph responded and in September 1994 Sr. Kathleen “Kit” Hinga, SSJ, began what was then called the “Outreach Project”. Sr. Kit became the first Executive Director of the Ministry.
Montague Catholic Social Ministries is based in the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church:
Also, the specific charism, or defining identity, of the Sisters of St. Joseph:
The writings of Paolo Friere also had an influence: adult education out of one’s lived experience, changing the environment and embracing culture. Likewise, the Settlement House Movement played a role: creating a community center and addressing the needs of the community out of that center. Principles of community organizing included the insights that leadership takes time to develop and that leadership shifts according to need.
In the beginning, three women wanted to create a play group in St. Anne’s Church Hall, which led to the involvement of seven parents. The group took on the clean-up of the adjoining park, emphasizing a respect for the environment.
The closing of the Strathmore Paper Mill, Railroad Salvage and other area businesses led to interaction with those who were losing their jobs.
There was a great interest in safety and crime, which led to cooperation with the larger community, Brick House and the police department. Impacts of welfare changes were also addressed. Emphasis was placed on information and referral. A bereavement group was begun. Discussion also focused on the relationship of the Ministry to the parishes (St. Mary, St. Anne & Sacred Heart). We received a grant of $7,800 from the Campaign for Human Development and $8,000 from the Sisters of St. Joseph.
In addition to Sr. Kit Hinga, SSJ, Executive Director, a Board was formed. The first President was Rev. Roland Renaud, Vice President Sr. Judith O’Connell, SSJ, Treasurer Sr. Mary Quinn, SSJ, and Secretary Rev. Stanley Aksamit. When Rev. Renaud was called to another assignment, Sr. Judith O’Connell became the next President of the Board.
In the first year we received $28,322 in grants, and $5,345 in contributions.
Montague’s median income was 335th out of 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. The poverty rate was 11.1% (compared with the State 8.5%). High School drop out rate was 23.3%. Female headed households made up 16% of households, but represented 86.7% of the poverty in the area. 22.4% of those living in poverty were children. In Turners Falls 70% of the households were 80% below median income. There was an infiltration of gangs, adding to the strong ethnic groups (Irish, French-Canadian, and Polish).
A conscious effort was made to connect the uphill and downhill segments of the community. The Community Capacity Building Project sought to identify community leaders, work on the quality of life and provide voter education.
The Board began to work on development, including “telling the story” of the Ministry to the three parishes and beginning to wonder about the role of others, particularly other Catholics in the area.
Sr. Connie Daub, SSJ, was added to the Staff in the spring of 1996.
In October 1996 Sr. Kit reported to the Board that there was a need for a new place for the Ministry. In January 1997 we leased the current office space at the corner of Third Street and Avenue A, and much of the clean-up and refurbishing was done by volunteers from the parishes. The front space was used as a Family Center, the middle became the area for meetings and classes, and the back was the Office space.
Parish collections were begun during Lent of 1996. The Board began to discuss the eventual need for participants on the Board. Discussion also focused on the name of the Ministry, particularly the word “Catholic”.
In 1997 there was much positive publicity in relation to the opening of the new site, the work of the Ministry in relation to the Crocker building fire, and MCSM’s work for a safe community.
In January 1998 the Board discussed the over-dependence on grants and the need for structured fundraising.
In 1998 the “Open Door Ministry”, under the direction of Congregational Minister Terry Hanley and his wife Bonnie, began to rent our space for services. Our new sign also went up in the beginning of 1998.
Issues of concern in the community included young adults hanging out on Avenue A, the town’s physical image, absentee landlords and neglected buildings, and personal safety training.
Programs included the Play Group, the Kids' Place Afterschool Program and the Summer Lunch Program.
In November 1998 the Board undertook discussion of MCSM’s special niche in the community. What is our unique identity? At the time, the Kids' Place took on a central importance. The Community Partnership for a Safe Montague focused on public safety training and neighborhood watch.
In May 1999 a search was begun for a new Executive Director, as Sr. Kit had decided to move on. Pat Fettinger became the second Director during the fall-summer of 1999. The services of an AmeriCorps volunteer were secured.
At the beginning of 2000, Pat reported that there was too much reliance on grants, that there was a need for part-time staff and a grant writer, and that potential donors needed to be identified within the community. Pat described MCSM as “the place that holds where goodness can happen”.
In January 2001 MCSM received a Community Foundation Grant of $28,000 and a Community Development Block Grant of $51,450. Programs and collaborative ventures included MIND, Arc, and the Support Network for Families. The Atrium project provided a meeting place for women with a history of trauma. The Turners Falls Women’s Resource Center was opened in the spring of 2001 and a Summer Literacy Program was begun. Personnel policies and hiring procedures were updated and a Gill-Montague Family Center Newsletter was published.
A determination was made that certain information regarding women’s issues would not be posted at MCSM’s offices due to official Catholic Church teaching on the subject.
In September 2001 the Annual Fund Drive for MCSM was launched. A meeting with the priests of Franklin County brought about a greater understanding of the Ministry.
In April 2002 the Housing agency notified us that the building in which our offices were located was going to be renovated and that there would be a place for MCSM. MCSM was featured prominently in that year’s Annual Catholic Appeal brochure.
In June 2002 the Board decided that a priest would be an ex officio member and that a Sister of St. Joseph would have a reserved position on the Board.
In July 2002 Pat Fettinger resigned and in September Maria Rodman became the third Executive Director of MCSM. Maria expanded the scope of the Ministry to include participation in the GM School District strategic planning, the Housing Authority, the Community School Partnership, the Women’s Consortium, the Women’s Fund, the Mediation and Training Collaborative and further cooperation with Brick House. Programs that continued to flourish included the Kids' Place Afterschool program, the Playgroup and the Women’s Center.
In April 2003 the basic needs line item in the budget was increased to $3,000.
Renovation of the building started in January 2004. Thus the Ministry moved to the First Congregational Church of Turners Falls in September 2003.
In March 2004 it was noted that the Ministry’s programs had developed to the point that participants in the programs were now beginning to run the programs and to participate in outreach. A CD was produced by the songwriting group.
At the April 2004 meeting of the Board Christine Diani and three program participants did a presentation on the Model of Growth and Recovery (a non-clinical model) that they were using. Laurie Herrick was hired to provide direction for fundraising.
In June 2004 a new lease was signed for the 41 Third Street Offices, while the Board continued discussion about the possibility of having two places to accommodate all the services and programs of the ministry. Office space was eventually hired in the former Carriage House on the opposite side of Third Street.
At a September 25 Staff retreat day some of the insights and comments included:
In October 2006 “Point of Entry” meetings were begun to provide members of the community a better acquaintance with the Ministry and its programs. Doris Doyle was instrumental in organizing several open houses. A brunch for potential donors was held at Bill’s Restaurant in Greenfield in August 2007.
In the summer of 2007 Maria Rodman resigned, and in September 2007 the Board hired Sharon Denman to become the fourth Executive Director of the Ministry. Under her leadership a thorough financial review was undertaken, a new accounting system was introduced, a line of credit was established, and all operations were moved back to the one office site at the corner of Third Street and Avenue A.
Sharon Denman resigned in the summer of 2008, and various Board members helped to fill the void at the Ministry while the search for a new Director was begun.
At a September 2008 meeting the Board discussed the unique nature of MCSM and highlighted the need not to duplicate services that other organizations were providing.
In December 2008 Susan Mareneck was hired as the fifth Executive Director of MCSM, with a starting date of January 15, 2009. Susan has worked hard to clarify personnel policies and funding issues and to begin a strategic planning process. In October 2009 an Ice Cream Social and Open House was held to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of Montague Catholic Social Ministries.