Sunday, February 12, 2017 - Updated: 11:02 AM
Answering “yes” to an invitation from her pastor in June 1990 led Carmelia Fury to 25 more years of saying “yes” to people in need in Lawrence County.
When Father Joseph Dascenzo, then-pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish in Ellwood City, asked her to represent the parish in a new diocesan initiative, Fury agreed to participate in the six-week program. She was part of the original class to be trained and certified in parish social ministry in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Fury earned certification and accepted a paid position at Holy Redeemer to launch what has become one of the parish’s signature programs. Her efforts for more than 25 years have allowed the parish to help thousands of the community’s most vulnerable people.
Her initial task back in 1990 was to complete a needs assessment for the parish and its surrounding area.
“One of the things I really liked about it was that it wasn’t just about the people in our parish,” Fury said. “It also answered to the needs of the community.”
The assessment was complex and continued over a period of years. During that time, she found that the three most significant needs in her area were emergency food assistance, energy/utility assistance and what she termed “tangible” assistance — financial help for people who needed a few extra dollars to cover the cost of necessities like a new pair of shoes for a child or gas money to get to work that week.
Once she understood the scope and nature of the need, Fury set about establishing means to help in all three areas. Her next step was figuring out how to fund those endeavors.
“I started off by highlighting the parish social ministry in the church bulletin,” she said.
An early boost came when an elderly parishioner handed her a check for $5,000 with the simple instruction, “Help the people.” That was the real beginning of the program, Fury said.
She established relationships with organizations like the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and reached out to potential donors at the parish and in her community. She partnered with Protestant and Catholic churches in the area to collaborate on the endeavor. Her formal role as a member of the parish staff was critical to her success, Fury said.
“Having a paid position at the parish provided legitimacy,” she said. When she met with civic groups and governmental agencies to explain her goals and solicit funding, being part of the staff at Holy Redeemer gave her credibility. Individual private donors in the parish and beyond were another key to Fury’s success.
One of her first projects was the creation of a food pantry. In partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Fury set up a food pantry at Holy Redeemer where people could come once a month for groceries. She established a contract with Lawrence County commissioners so the county’s contributions to the Pittsburgh food bank would ultimately come back to Holy Redeemer for distribution to local people in need.
Another accomplishment was Fury’s partnership with Columbia Gas to help identify people who needed assistance through the Dollar Energy Fund, which provides a one-time grant available to people who require financial assistance with gas, electric or water bills.
Over the years, she learned many of the ins and outs of social services. Because government and corporate funding is often restricted for particular uses, Fury became an expert at raising money for the tangible assistance that so often fills in the gaps for people facing financial difficulty. Tangible assistance, she said, is unique to Holy Redeemer’s social ministry. She said that few, if any, other agencies in the area are able to offer money for someone who might need temporary assistance.
“The hardest part of my job was seeing grown men and women in tears because they were going to lose their children to foster care,” Fury said. “But the part where I could say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you through this,’ was amazing.”
That’s where tangible assistance came in — in the form of things like purchasing beds for children who had none so they could stay in their homes.
Another unique feature of the ministry is that 100 percent of donations go directly to people in need in the local community, Fury said. Because her position was funded through the parish and the food pantry is located on parish property, Holy Redeemer provides all the overhead costs for the ministry. Any money that people donate goes to assist people in need rather than toward operating costs.
“I have always been amazed at the generosity of people when they know they’re directly helping someone,” she said.
Although Fury retired in September, the ministry she built is still going strong. Father Mark Thomas, pastor of Holy Redeemer, worked with Fury to create a transition plan to ensure the program continued after her departure.
Father Thomas said that Holy Redeemer’s social service ministry is fundamental to the mission of the parish.
“Our parish bears the name of our Savior,” he said. “In order to be true to our calling, we must do as he did.”
Another important element for Father Thomas is the spirit of collaboration among the faithful in Lawrence County.
“What I find truly amazing and beautiful is that the area churches have joined in to help in this effort,” he said. “This social service program has brought Catholics and Christians of other denominations together to fulfill the Gospel mandate.”
Today, Cathy DeBlaso and Jan Baur serve as the program’s managers. DeBlaso has worked at Holy Redeemer’s social services ministry for seven years. She oversees the food pantry, including the monthly food truck deliveries and 40 volunteers who help unload trucks and sort groceries. DeBlaso also keeps track of inventory and ensures the pre-bagged groceries are ready to distribute to recipients when they arrive.
Baur heads up the energy assistance program, meeting with clients to determine need and walking with them through the process of identifying sources of aid to help with utility bills. Baur has been with the ministry for 17 years; she volunteered for a number of years and joined the staff in 2004.
One of Baur’s favorite parts of her work at Holy Redeemer is the “Shining Stars” Christmas program, which served 160 families in 2016. Baur and DeBlaso coordinate gifts of clothing and toys for children during the holidays. Each child in the family receives an outfit and a new toy. While the event involves a great deal of work, Baur said the outcome is worth the effort.
“One day in December, people come in and pick up all the gifts. You just love what you do,” Baur said.
Holy Redeemer’s social services ministry has scaled back its days of operation in order to become more cost-efficient. It is currently open Tuesdays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. DeBlaso said they typically welcome 20 to 40 people each of those days. What began 25 years ago with some cans of food on a shelf has grown into a ministry that serves 370 households per month.
That’s an impressive legacy for Fury, who could not have realized back in 1990 where her “yes” to Father Dascenzo’s invitation would lead.
For information about Holy Redeemer’s social services ministry, contact DeBlaso or Baur at 724-758-3465. Fury is available to advise parishes interested in social services ministry and can be reached at email@example.com.