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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Meet the Diocese’s New Director of Religious Education

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Suzanne Hammons
Suzanne Hammonshttp://dioceseofgallup.org
Suzanne Hammons is the editor of the Voice of the Southwest and the media coordinator for the Diocese of Gallup. A graduate of Benedictine College in Kansas, she joined the Diocesan staff in 2012.
Sr. Carol Woods, center, pictured with fellow Franciscan sisters Cristina Sascau (left) and Sofia Lee (right).

The term “catechetical ministry” is a bit of a mouthful – but it’s simply a way of referring to an office that oversees religious education in parishes. As the new Catechetical Ministry Director for the Diocese of Gallup, Sr. Carol Woods will formulate and guide programs like RCIA, Sunday School, and instructional classes for children who are about to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation, Eucharist, and Confirmation.

She has only lived in the Diocese of Gallup for a short period of time, helping to run Sacred Heart Retreat Center with its director and fellow Franciscan Sr. Sofia Lee. But with that experience, Sr. Carol said she is looking forward to learning more about the people and parishes she will be serving. She spoke with The Voice of the Southwest about her background and future goals for her new role.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Voice of the Southwest: Can you tell us about the order you belong to?

I’m with the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Assisi.

We’re a small international community founded in Assisi [Italy] in 1702. We’re related to the Conventional Friars, the ones who wear gray and black. Throughout the world, we’re in about 20 countries.

We’re about 600 sisters total. But there are a few [groupings] that are very small like us – 13 sisters in the States. And there are some that have at least 100 sisters in some places like Korea and Zambia.

Only 13 in the United States? Wow. And how many of you are here in the Diocese?

Three now. There was a fourth, but she went back to Korea.

So how did you end up in the Diocese of Gallup?

In 2016, I was working at a parish in Brooklyn – we belong to the Franciscan Federation. It’s Franciscan communities that follow a rule that was renovated in 1982 by Pope John Paul II. And it just became more alive – Franciscan spirituality is part of it. And so we belong to the federation. When I was in leadership, I made sure that happened.

And then they were also advertising for Tohatchi – needing someone. And there’s a strong history of Franciscan communities having been here – even women’s communities coming at different times. And many that I met in the federation had been here. There was a process of a few of the bosses, the leaders of our congregation coming to see it and to consider, because it was a big jump for us, being so small.

Especially from New York to New Mexico, it’s very different. Did you volunteer to come out here?

I was working for the federation for six years. That was all I could do – only two three-year terms. So when we came last August, I already knew I didn’t have [that] job anymore. And I had been in Brooklyn for 11 years, so that was enough for anybody.

How did you discover your vocation to be a sister?

I grew up in Rensselaer, New York, across the Hudson [River] from Albany. And there was a Franciscan seminary in Rensselaer. I have a First Communion picture of me in front of this big statue of St. Anthony that’s in front of this little mission chapel at the seminary. I was in a public high school, but there were Catholic kids in it. They were going to retreats there, because it was a theological seminary for the friars.

And then so I went. And just through that, the friars that were studying there had been in Granby, Massachusetts, for their philosophy years. And that’s where the sisters were working. [They] had come from Italy in 1961 and been working at the novitiate and the seminary – one in Maryland and one in Massachusetts. I met them in my freshman year at college through the friars. [The sisters] had just bought this little old house in Holyoke, Massachusetts, for their novitiate here in the States. And so I went back and forth for about two and a half years before I actually entered.

So how many years total have you been a sister?

I entered in the fall of 1978. My first [assignments] were in Assisi in 1981. And then I came back and started working in a parish in Massachusetts.

Wow, in Assisi, Italy? That must have been special.

Oh, it’s wonderful. I’ll go back anytime. I lived there about two and a half years, 2003 to 2005 or something like that. I was on the side of our house that looked to the [Basilica] Santa Maria degli Angeli.

The Basilica in Assisi, Italy, where St. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans. Image courtesy: Wikipedia.

So how do you like your time here in the diocese so far?

There are many learning curves and inner work to do about what I’m seeing – the poverty, the hard luck, the lack of opportunities. And I’ve been impressed by [fellow Franciscan] Sister Sofia, and her take on what to do, on how to work. That’s from our founding, our spirituality, too. Our founders said, “If you have one piece of bread in the house, split it, share it with someone else.” And also: “don’t help a lot of people [only a little]. If you help few, you can really help them”. You know, really focus on helping another change their situation. And that’s what I think we can do here. We’re tiny, but we can care. And here there are many people open to needing help and wanting it.

So how did the conversation come up about the job opening for a Director of Catechetical Ministry?

I’ve done this before, in Massachusetts, in New York – over the years, different jobs. [The] first place was half-Polish and half-English speaking. And then in Brooklyn I was a DRE [Director of Religious Education] five years. And there, there was a Spanish community, a Polish community, and an English community. My Italian has overtaken any other language I’ve tried to learn. But I really felt a connection to the parents, you know, that would sign up their kids in Spanish. And I might answer in Italian, but they knew I understood them.

So it wasn’t the best situation, but it was humbling and engaging, anyway.

But [here] we’ve sought to become more in touch with the real people and the parishes and the reservation. And they come to us at the [retreat] center, but there’s a lack of experience on our part of understanding. We want to be involved with the evangelization within the diocese – you know, direct contact. This is a little overwhelming because it is a huge land mass here. But I’m a team worker and I love the opportunity to go with others from here to visit parishes together, to see the realities and then work toward connecting people to what they need.

Do you have any goals that you want to accomplish for this job?

First, getting to know where and what they need. I did meet with the priests the other day [at a quarterly gathering], just to be introduced. There’s catechetical formation that is available to our people who are involved in catechesis. It’s all online. It’s from Steubenville’s Catechetical Institute. I don’t know if everybody has internet. Ours goes out once in a while when the wind blows too much.

So that’s a priority. This policy now of confirmation in third grade, I had heard of that in other situations, but I’ve never worked with it. But with that change in 2019 and then Covid, you know, there’s a lot of distancing that’s happened in parishes. They might not be teaching in every grade, but they’re having youth ministry and there’s a faith component to that for different age groups. Because I really think we need to be talking about the Gospel with every age. Don’t let it stop in third grade, and don’t forget the elders or anybody else that might feel disconnected.

From your experience, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges in the Church in general with religious education, or things that you hope would be implemented or addressed?

I live in an international community. I’ve lived with sisters from all over. I’ve been to other countries. And so there’s a respect I’ve learned, you know. But you still need knowledge about the differences. And I feel I’m really lacking in that – [with] the Native communities, but I’m willing to learn. Some of the priests who have been here forever have offered to have lunch and keep [me] up to speed in their experience of different intercultural work.

That’s a learning curve for us as a community, as well.

The Eucharistic Congress and all of that – I know we’ll focus on the Eucharist with the teachers and catechists, and that will be in September, but that’s a timeless topic.

My first work in parishes was bringing Communion to those who couldn’t come to Mass. There [are] people in the parish that will say that they were homebound, so find them and connect them to the Eucharistic ministers we’re preparing.

So that comes to mind here, you know – how many are not able to get to church or how many have given up because it’s too hard to try?

When you have any free time, do you have any hobbies or anything you like to do for fun?

Walking, hiking. I love puzzles. So if we go someplace I want to remember, we’ll get the puzzle. And many retreat centers have one going, just as a [way to] keep quiet, to process something.

I read quite a bit.

What are some of your favorite books or authors?

Anything Franciscan, you know – Franciscan history and spirituality. Online I’ve been reading a lot about decolonization, racism. And that is a [continuation] from my work with the federation, you know, a sensitivity. I’m slowing down after Brooklyn, so I’m able to read a little bit more now.

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