Amber McGrath was 9 years old and living with her drug-addicted mother at the Queen of Peace Center in St. Louis when police showed up to remove her and her brother. While her mother spent nights on the street doing drugs, Amber resorted to stealing food to feed her family. She told police she had been raped more than once.
That’s when Catholic Charities stepped in to help. Amber spent six years at Marygrove, a home for children who are traumatized from abuse and neglect. She graduated with honors from high school and today is a police officer in the St. Louis area.
Amber’s story is not unlike countless others who have been touched by the work of Catholic Charities. Hers was featured in a video marking 100 years of service in St. Louis.
Today, however, Catholic Charities of St. Louis faces an uncertain future. The Obama administration’s anti-conscience mandate, finalized by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year, would force the organization to violate conscience or face hefty fines. That prompted both Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of St. Louis to join a lawsuit against the government.
Marygrove, the home where Amber lived, serves 700 to 800 children per year. It is one of eight agencies that are at the core of Catholic Charities’ work in St. Louis. The organization offers more than 100 programs to benefit an estimated 157,000 poor and impoverished people each year. That makes it one of the largest private providers of social services in Missouri.
“Catholic Charities is the way the church serves those in need,” said the Rev. Robert J. Carlson, archbishop of St. Louis. “It is a major ministry of the church where we carry out Christ’s mission to help others and we call on others to do the same. Yet most of the people we serve are not Catholic. We help those in need not because they’re Catholic, but because we are Catholic.”
Because many of them aren’t Catholic, the organization would be forced to adapt to the government’s mandate. Carlson noted that the government’s definition of a “religious employer” includes only Catholic organizations that primarily serve Catholics. Carlson said the threat to religious liberty gave the archdiocese and Catholic Charities little choice, even after the Obama administration announced its supposed “accommodation.”
“It fails to protect the religious liberties of those Catholic institutions that reach out to non-Catholics, like our St. Louis area Catholic hospitals and universities, and Catholic Charities of St. Louis,” Carlson wrote in a letter last month.
For a century, Catholic Charities has played a vital role serving a community of non-Catholics. One example dates to 1975 when the organization began helping refugees after the Vietnam War.
“People come to our agencies at the worst time of their lives, really having everything stripped from them sometimes,” said Karen Wallensak of Catholic Charities Community Services. “People don’t call Catholic Charities because things are going well. They call when they’re in their most desperate hour.”
According to statistics provided by Catholic Charities, the need in the St. Louis area is significant:
- 157,041 meals were served to homeless people.
- 28,853 calls were made to the Homeless Hotline seeking emergency shelter.
- 29,475 seniors were housed, fed, counseled, or received some other services.
- 17,979 children served directly through foster care, residential placements, day care, after school and summer programs.
- 15,617 instances of basic needs assistance services i.e. clothing, prescriptions, and other vital services.
- 1,373 people received legal assistance.
- 4,432 adults received assistance with job searches or training.
- 114 refugees were re-settled.
That’s all the more reason the archdiocese and Catholic Charities are fighting for their ability to carry out this mission without interference from the government.
“Right now the future is unclear, and any scenario that forces us to violate our moral convictions is unacceptable. At the same time, any scenario that forces our St. Louis area hospitals, schools, and charities to close would be devastating to the many people employed and served by these institutions,” Carlson said.