Shining the Light of Christ in Puerto Rico

A letter from Father Jack Wall

On Oct. 19 I was delighted to present this year’s Lumen Christi Award to Melva Arbelo, an inspiring Catholic laywoman from the Diocese of Arecibo in Puerto Rico. Although Catholic Extension has a long history of providing significant help to the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico, Melva is the first recipient of the award from the island.

With her shining example of living faith, her warm and welcoming personality and her great love for and commitment to helping vulnerable and suffering children, Melva has a powerful story to tell. She serves as the director of a home for abused and neglected children in Puerto Rico.

Meeting the resilient children at Santa Teresita, you can’t miss the incredible heartbreak they have gone through, the blessings that they are receiving now, or the healing of their deep wounds by those blessings.

The Santa Teresita Home in Arecibo is more than a protective social service to children who have already suffered too much in their young lives. It is the mission and passion of dedicated Catholics who pour their hearts and lives out in a powerful extension of God’s love. The transformations that happen in the lives of these young children are rooted in faith, which undergirds everything in Santa Teresita’s crucial mission.

Fr. Wall gives a gift to a child from Santa Teresita Home at the Lumen Christi Award ceremony.

The Catholic faith that inspired this ministry was formed by Arecibo’s faith communities — most importantly by the dedicated Dominican Sisters of the Presentation and by the Parish of Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus. It was through this, her home parish, that Melva first got involved.

As a member of the parish choir, she enlisted her fellow choir members and parishioners to put on a concert to raise funds to start the home. That first step led her to get more and more involved in a healing mission that has already transformed the lives of 500 vulnerable young children.

Melva’s and Santa Teresita’s story also highlights the impact that the island’s current severe debt and economic crisis is having on the lives of Puerto Rican Catholics and their local churches. As Archbishop Roberto González of San Juan recently told us, those most affected are children living in poverty. Melva’s shelter is but one of the many Catholic ministries serving them.

The Mass and Lumen Christi Award presentation at Santa Teresita Parish in Puerto Rico.

Because of the crisis, more Americans have been paying attention to the island and what’s going on there. But there is no quick fix for the problems, and Puerto Ricans have been emigrating to the mainland — especially to Florida — in record numbers.

At Catholic Extension we have had a strong commitment to supporting our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters since the very beginning of our organization. Not long after the island became a territory of the United States, our founder, Father Francis Clement Kelley rallied American Catholics to the cause of helping the island through the work of Catholic Extension.

Melva with the children from Santa Teresita Home.

Ever since then, we have been helping the Puerto Rican Church. The island is one of the regions where we have provided the most per-capita resources to help build Catholic faith communities to transform lives and communities.

The Puerto Rican Church, seat of the oldest Catholic diocese in this hemisphere, is both part of Latin America and part of the United States. As such, it has a unique role of bridging the cultures in the Church of the Americas. Like the Church in other Latin American countries, it is close to the poor and has much to teach the rest of us about what it means to follow Pope Francis’ call to be a “poor church for the poor.”

May the light of Christ shining in Melva Arbelo and so many other dedicated Puerto Rican Catholics spur all of us to shine more brightly ourselves and recommit ourselves to helping the least of our brothers and sisters at America’s margins.

The light of Christ, thanks be to God,

Rev. John J. Wall

President, Catholic Extension