Founder of Philadelphia community center recipient of annual CCHD award
Catholic News Service photo
Bethany Welch poses for a photo at the St. Thomas Aquinas Center's community garden in Philadelphia June 6. Welch is this year's recipient of the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin New Leadership Award given by the U.S. bishops' Catholic Campaign for Human Develo pment. A June 11 presentation of the award was taking place during the bishops' spring assembly in New Orleans.
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — Long before she became a Catholic in 2005, Bethany Welch demonstrated a commitment to serving others and living out the Gospel.
From creating relationships with the marginalized while living at the poverty level to developing a community center that supports immigrant populations in one of the poorest parts of the U.S., Welch embodies the Gospel message as she combats the problems of poverty, drug use and gun violence in South Philadelphia.
For her work, Welch, 35, is this year's recipient of the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin New Leadership Award, given by the U.S. bishops' Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
Named for the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, the award has been presented annually since 1988 to a Catholic between 18 and 40 years old who demonstrates leadership in fighting poverty and injustice through community-based solutions.
Although Welch cites her parents as "models of faith in action," she didn't consider a career in social change until finishing her undergraduate studies.
After graduating from Roberts Wesleyan College in 2000, Welch worked at a large food bank in Rochester, New York, where she coordinated advocacy efforts and successfully secured new language for federal legislation governing hunger and food security.
Welch continued to serve the urban poor when she moved to Philadelphia to become an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. While participating in the one-year national service program, Welch developed a service learning program for at-risk youth and helped launch a community center sponsored by Catholic Social Services of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Although not yet Catholic herself, Welch was drawn to the anti-poverty mission of the project.
"I have never before encountered such brokenness, such pain. The neighborhood where the center is located is the 'hungriest in America,'" Welch told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview. "It has some of the highest rates of drug addiction ... and, as a result, incredible levels of gun violence. It was like the neighborhood had been completely forgotten by the rest of the city of Philadelphia."
Although she quickly became "overwhelmed and disillusioned" by the project, she cites the experience as "the final step" in her decision to join the Catholic Church.
"I didn't understand how the sisters and priests I worked with were doing this work for 30 and 40 years when I was discouraged after two months," said Welch. "I kept ending up over at the rectory kitchen asking how God was OK with this brokenness ... and how these men and women of faith stay invested in their work. What sustained them? They pointed me to the Eucharist."
As she discovered how "Christ's body ... unites us with those who are suffering," Welch began to feel called to "contribute to the light of the Gospel" by using her talents and gifts to help others.
"I found a home in the Catholic faith," said Welch. "I think I am called to be accountable for that gift. ...That means taking every opportunity to use my gifts and talents to further the kingdom of God on earth. Sometimes that is in art. Sometimes that is through research and writing. Sometimes it is in speaking up for those without a voice."
During the process to join the church, Welch's biggest supporter was Msgr. Hugh Shields. After he became pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in South Philadelphia, he invited Welch to use her extensive knowledge in community development and repurposing church property to convert a former convent on his parish campus into something that could foster the goals of the local community.
As she developed ideas for the space, Welch spent three months listening to the multicultural, multilingual members of the parish community explain their needs and hopes for the parish. After inviting a network of institutions and organizations to "come see what God was doing in South Philly," Welch received the support necessary to open the Aquinas Center in January 2013 during the feast of the parish's patron saint.
Following its mission to build unity in diversity, support learning and inspire thoughtful action, the Aquinas Center sustains a law clinic and mental health counseling program to support immigrant populations; houses global fundraising efforts with the help of Catholic Charities; and works with the greater Philadelphia community to promote urban unification projects throughout the city.
In a May 28 statement, the chairman of CCHD, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, described how Welch promotes the message of the Gospel within her community.
"Bethany Welch is practicing her Catholic faith in an inspiring way. She lives at the service of immigrants and the working poor, those on the margins of our society," said Bishop Soto. "Her work echoes Pope Francis' call to reach out to those whom the culture excludes with the 'evangelii gaudium,' the joy of the Gospel. Bethany brings to life the mission of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development."
He was presenting the award to Welch June 11 during the bishops' annual spring meeting in New Orleans.
Although Welch has already done so much, she hopes to inspire young people to become more active within their communities in a book she is writing regarding the experience of founding the Aquinas Center.
"I hope to help young people find the point of mutuality and reciprocity where an individual is able to share his gifts and talents in order to empower others to use the gifts that God has given them," said Welch. "Each of us has been given so many privileges and I feel that we are responsible for giving back. By discovering what animates your heart and spirit and using it to help others in a thoughtful and passionate way, you are able to make a real impact."