Montague Catholic Social Ministries: A Look Back


MCSM was founded in 1994 by three local parishes in response to a crisis of violence in the community. At that time, Turners Falls had one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the state of Massachusetts. People from the neighborhoods came together to address the problem, holding discussion forums, organizing and collaborating to create a network of mutual support. MCSM was founded in the spirit of such collaboration and because of the many hours of work that members of the community dedicated toward making their neighborhoods safe and welcoming for all.

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:

  • Justice is not an accidental, but a constitutive, part of the gospel
  • Structural and institutional change
  • The oppressed have a role in change
  • Leadership development from among the people
  • Teaching people how to fish, rather than just giving them fish
  • It takes a whole village to raise a child

Also, the specific charism, or defining identity, of the Sisters of St. Joseph:

  • Unity with neighbor
  • Hospitality without distinction
  • Solidarity with and option for the poor
  • Working with and being with the community at large
  • Not being for, but walking side by side
  • Building on strengths until no longer needed

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 consumers or clients 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 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 Kid’s 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 Women’s 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 Kid’s Place, the 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:

  • Everyone who enters our doors is a gift
  • MCSM welcomes people on an equal footing
  • MCSM is a resource and sounding board for the community in times of trouble (for example, during a teenage murder in the community).

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 in 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.

November 17, 2009

At the beginning of 2009 a Spanish-speaking playgroup was begun at a local Laundromat, and was later brought to the Ministries space—the beginning of a concerted effort to reach out to this growing segment of the population. Conversational English classes were begun. Vecina a Vecina, a facilitated workshop for women whose first language is Spanish and those whose first language is English to come together, was begun. Eventually, ESOL was brought to the local community and was offered at the MCSM offices.

Work was begun on reviewing, updating and codifying personnel policies. A new Advisory Group for the Family Resource Center was created. Staff professional development and networking with various agencies and groups have become a priority.

In the autumn of 2009 Vicki L. Riddle, ACSW, Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Springfield, began working with staff and board members on a three year strategic plan for 2010-2013. The group looked at both strengths and weaknesses of the ministry in various areas. Listening sessions were held with partners as well as members of the community served by MCSM.

Along with specific objectives, anticipated outcomes and timeline, the group developed five goals:

  • Staff Development and Team Building—to create a non-judgmental worksite that values, listens to and (within the limits of the agency) provides development to the staff.
  • Agency Programming will be responsive to community needs and will maximize agency services and mission relevance.
  • Montague Catholic Social Ministries will improve its current facilities and technology circumstances.
  • Montage Catholic Social Ministries will create fiscal stability in the agency—to support its mission and values-driven services.
  • Montage Catholic Social Ministries will create a marketing plan—to increase visibility within the community and with partners.

The goals, objectives and projected outcomes, developed during strategic planning, have guided the Ministry in its choices and programming.

A process for uniform data collection about those who make use of MCSM services was begun, as was the development of the MCSM website. Strategies for increased, targeted and sustained fundraising, along with new grant opportunities, have continued to be a topic of concern. New ways of connecting with area church communities have received a new impetus.

In 2010 MCSM saw the critical need to offer support services for the men of our community and initial steps have been taken to discern and meet their needs. A program entitled “Dad’s 4 Dad’s- Male Caregivers of Children” was begun.

Staff members became involved in an evaluation process in which they were asked to set goals and evaluate their own efforts, and then to discuss this with partners and the Executive Director. One of the greatest innovations in recent years has been the development of a shared leadership model in which staff members take on parts of administration that are in keeping with their gifts and interests, resulting in greater ownership of the mission and goals of MCSM. A renewed spirit and a sense of excitement have grown among staff members, as well as with the various groups and agencies with which MCSM collaborates.

While continuing to develop programs that help people to become self-sufficient, the Basic Needs program has done a wonderful job of responding to immediate needs and providing referrals to other agencies, programs and resources. The Women’s Center has developed new approaches that respond to the various needs of women and children in our community.

A new initiative, “New Horizons—The Bridge”, was begun in association with Greenfield Community College, with the goal of providing an educational continuum from one women’s center to the other. To help fund this and other programs, meetings have been held with business leaders and interested partners in the community.

Executive Director Susan Mareneck has placed increasing focus on the building and sustaining of partnerships with various groups and agencies in Western Massachusetts and across the Commonwealth. This has provided new opportunities for shared-grant proposals that will provide funding for the increased capacity for services resulting from agencies working together.

A retreat was held for staff and board members, facilitated by Mary Reardon Johnson, Executive Director of the YWCA, On March 31, 2012. Mary led us in reflections and discussions about what makes MCSM unique and special. We are a faith-based organization that, regardless of size or specific programming, our mission is to strengthen families and it is the quality of our relationships with those we serve that is our most precious resource and must be preserved. In a unique way we are practicing within the framework of our founding, in the spirit of Catholic social justice principles and the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph—unity with neighbor, accompanying the members of our community on their journey, providing hospitality without distinction, and helping individuals and families to grow in dignity and strength.

While financing has always been a challenge, MCSM has found a way to respond to the changing needs of our community. Sometimes in mysterious ways, God continues to provide. We are blessed with compassionate and competent Staff, dedicated Board members, a supportive base, and a gifted, forward-looking and spirit-filled Executive Director. MCSM has definitely found its niche in the heart of our community.

November 1, 2012

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