Catholic Social Services in Anchorage celebrates its 50th anniversary this spring, marking a half-century of living out its mission of providing help and creating hope for vulnerable Alaskans.
It’s a history defined by remarkable personalities, social change, the detritus of a devastating earthquake and a death in a city dumpster that inspired a shelter.
Executive Director Lisa Aquino looks back over her agency’s five decades and sees resilience, adaptability and commitment.
“We’re the social justice arm of the Catholic Church,” she said. “Over its history, Catholic Social Services has responded by assessing the community’s greatest needs. The gift of our broad mission as an agency is that we fill the gaps for the most vulnerable.”
MULTIFACETED ARM OF THE CHURCH
Today, eight programs address those gaps for the homeless, for pregnant women needing support, for children with special needs, for adoptions, for the hungry, for refugees and recent immigrants.
Throughout CSS’s history, volunteers from across the spectrum and from every religious affiliation — or none — have supported the agency. For example, since opening in 1983, Clare House, a shelter for women and children, has offered dinner each evening, and every meal has been provided by a volunteer group or church.
“Every faith community helps us,” Aquino said. “Catholic social teaching is so universal. We have an army of volunteers who are critical to our work.”
In 2015, volunteers provided 44,098 hours of service.
Pat Byrne is a long-time CSS’s volunteer, described by Aquino as “an awesome advocate.” From its beginning she was involved in Brother Francis Shelter, a homeless outreach for adults. She has served on the outreach’s advisory council since its inception. Now retired from the Anchorage School District, Byrne is also a “personal shopper” at St. Francis House, a food pantry, helping people with their food selections. She has also served on CSS’s Charity Ball committee for three years.
Working with CSS is important to her Catholic faith.
“It’s by our baptism that we are called to be Christ to others,” she said, noting that is it “profound to address the needs of the poor.”
Working at the food pantry is “humbling,” Byrne added. “I try to make it a positive experience for people, fun or light-hearted. Many of them aren’t happy to need to be there.”
The statistics of those served by CSS are staggering. St. Francis House provided 312,972 meals in 2015, representing 52,162 trips through the pantry and 626,516 pounds of food distributed. Brother Francis Shelter, which was established in 1982, provided 97,936 nights of sleep and served 69,902 dinners to 3,417 men and women without a home in 2015.
When Catholic Social Services was established in 1966, it was a red-letter year for the church in Southcentral Alaska. The new Archdiocese of Anchorage had been created that year in the wake of the devastating 1964 earthquake, with the late Archbishop Joseph Ryan as its head. The earthquake’s destruction made the need for more organized charitable efforts apparent.
But even before the earthquake, dedicated Catholics had been working to address the social ills of the city. St. Francis House, operating out of a small building behind Holy Family Cathedral, had begun responding to the hungry by 1962. Dona Agosti, a mother of seven who frequently opened her home to those in need in the then small town of Anchorage, is credited with helping to organize and direct CSS in its infancy.
Sister Clare Ciulla, a red-haired dynamo in the blue habit of the Presentation Sisters, was appointed executive director of CSS by Archbishop Ryan. The early agency focused on food and clothing for the poor, and on pregnancy support and adoptions.
Beverly Walsh, a local businesswoman and the mother of Father Leo Walsh, pastor at St. Benedict Church, was a supporter from the beginning and board member of CSS who has remained active throughout the agency’s history.
DEATH IN THE DUMPSTER
In 1976, late Archbishop Francis Hurley succeeded Archbishop Ryan. Anchorage was experiencing the growing pains of a larger community, and with it came new social needs.
Bob Flint, who served on the board of CSS from the early 1970s through 1991, recalled a wake-up call about homelessness.
“In 1981, we had the ‘dumpster incident,’” Flint recalls. When a homeless man sought warmth and shelter in a dumpster behind Holy Family Cathedral, he was killed when garbage collectors unwittingly emptied him into the truck’s compactor.
“Archbishop Hurley and I met. Sometimes God speaks in a small whispering voice, and sometimes he hits you with a sledgehammer,” Flint said.
EXPANDING WITH THE CITY’S NEEDS
The increasing numbers of the homeless population had to be addressed.
After an early shelter in the upstairs of a downtown office building was no longer available, a homeless encampment on the Park Strip sprang up and strategically focused the entire city’s attention on the issue. Archbishop Hurley collaborated with then Mayor Tony Knowles and his assistant John Franklin to begin a homeless shelter in a heavy equipment shed owned by the city. It was the beginning of what would become Brother Francis Shelter, which in 2005 was moved to a rebuilt facility.
It’s an example of what Aquino said is the agency’s ability to address needs as they arise. In the late 1980s, for example, it was evident that refugee resettlement was becoming both a national and local issue. CSS became the official resettlement agency for the state, and continues to provide assistance to refugees and immigrants as they negotiate life in a new country.
Over the years, CSS’s focus has shifted from simply meeting immediate needs to helping people make changes to better their lives. An extensive case management program works with people to find housing, jobs and skills.
Catholic Social Services is separately incorporated from the Archdiocese of Anchorage, but shares the non-profit tax exemption of the church. As the social services arm of the archdiocese, the agency serves Archbishop Schwietz in his commitment to Catholic social teaching, Aquino said.
Their mission is to “compassionately serve the poor and those in need, strengthen individuals and families, and advocate for social justice.”
CHALLENGES LOOKING AHEAD
Money is a perennial challenge facing CSS. Now, with Alaska’s oil industry suffering from a decline in both production and revenues, sending ripples through the state’s economy, Aquino said she anticipates some decline in funding, both in government aid and in private donations.
“Our donors are the most generous people,” she said. But with possible tough times ahead, CSS will do what it’s always done.
“We will provide the strongest service with the most qualified staff at the lowest cost we can,” Aquino said. “We will look beyond the moment to what the need is and to what strengths we have.”
Looking to the future, Aquino said the agency’s board of trustees has set a goal of ending homelessness, and working with other community groups to model best practices to do so. It’s a challenge, but with 50 years of serving the poor under its belt CSS aims to move forward, meeting the needs of the community with steadfastness and dedication.