ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — When Father Stan Sledz inherited $200,000 in 1991, he wanted to use that money to help Catholics from minority communities.
It was a natural desire after having served at a traditionally African American parish, St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, from 1982 to 1990.
Father Sledz, who is white, hoped to engage and recruit more members of minority communities for church leadership, and felt the way to do it was to strengthen Catholic ministry by helping people get the training and materials they needed to succeed in their roles.
He approached the Catholic Community Foundation of Minnesota, which works with individuals and organizations who want to invest their money and use some of it to help the Catholic Church. Together, they created a donor-advised fund in 1995 that would provide annual grants to Catholics from minority communities who are involved in faith formation at their parishes.
They named it New City Ministry — a reference to the new city of Jerusalem mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
That was 25 years ago. In the years since, using interest earned on the principal amount, 426 grants totaling $237,323 have been awarded to Catholic leaders in 24 parishes, all but one in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Father Sledz, now 77 and retired, called it “a great blessing” to provide grants to African American parish leaders and other members of minority communities, to allow them to bolster their ministry skills in a culturally responsive way. He also wanted to honor the legacy of his uncle, Father Henry Sledz, from whom the inheritance money came after his death in 1991.
Grant applicants include Latino Catholics at several parishes; Native Americans at Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis, where Father Sledz now serves as sacramental minister; and Vietnamese Catholics at St. Anne-St. Joseph Hien in Minneapolis. Father Tim Tran, a member of St. Anne-St. Joseph Hien who was ordained a priest in May, received a grant in 2016 while serving as a youth ministry leader in his parish.
Rita Commodore of St. Peter Claver received one of the first New City Ministry grants. In 1996, she used the money to purchase what she described as “Afrocentric” materials to help her lead and develop a parish confirmation program, which she had begun directing in 1993 as the confirmation coordinator. She continued in that role until her retirement from the volunteer position this year.
The materials helped her teach teens about the history of African and African American involvement in the church, including the National Black Catholic Congress, formed in 1889.
“I just love what New City Ministry has been about,” Commodore told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “It just means a lot that Father Stan had that idea to put that together to help develop people in ministry, because it’s so important. If, in our church, we don’t see people that look like us doing the ministry, you won’t have people like us very long.”
Since the early years, much of the $10,000 in annual grant money has been funneled toward Latino Catholics serving in parishes. An important advocate is Anne Attea, who has worked in Latino ministry for more than 20 years and now serves on the New City Ministry awardee selection committee.
Since New City Ministry’s inception, 392 of its grants — 79% — have gone to Latinos. In some cases, individuals have received multiple grants.
Among those recipients is Deacon Ramon Garcia Degollado, who received four grants in the early 2000s that helped steer him to the permanent diaconate program and his ordination in 2008. His wife, Suzanne, also received grants during the same years.
They used the grant money to attend classes of the Institute for Christian Life and Ministry, an archdiocesan program launched in 1997 that offered practical theology training for volunteers, lay ministers and teachers. The classes were important in preparing and equipping them for ministry, they said.
Their first grant came in 2000, four years before the first of their three children was born.
The two have worked side by side in Latino ministry for more than 20 years. Deacon Garcia recently started a part-time job in Latino ministry at Holy Rosary Parish in south Minneapolis after working at St. Stephen Parish in Anoka, Minnesota.
Suzanne continues to work at St. Stephen in music and Latino ministry. They have collaborated to help Latino couples prepare for marriage since they themselves married in 1997.
“The New City Ministry scholarships were very important,” said Suzanne, whose family, like many other Latino families, has struggled with tight finances, especially with all three children attending Catholic schools. “I don’t think we would have been able to do the classes otherwise.”
Deacon Garcia came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1993, hoping to deepen his faith and explore ministry opportunities.
“In Mexico, we don’t have access to this kind of formation,” he said. “The resources are very limited. So, when I arrived here and found this opportunity, I started to go deep in my faith, in my relationship with God. And, I started to discover a call to service in the church.”
One thing that has helped the New City Ministry program draw more applicants is that “almost all” requests are approved,. Applicants apply through their parish, with a “supervisor recommendation” from a leader such as a pastor or ministry director. The selection committee then divides the total grant money by the number of applicants. The idea is to help as many people as possible receive help to become leaders in their own parish.
Attea praised Father Sledz for his vision “and for his 25 years of being steadfast and persistent in pursuing the vision.”
“He is genuinely interested in learning and cultivating relationships across ethnicities and cultures. … He loves people, and he is very passionate about getting to know all types of people and cultures, and also wanting to build up the diversity of our church,” she added.