Fathers Kevin Yarnell and Anthony Sirianni thought they knew American Catholic schools. Then they visited the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Frs. Yarnell and Sirianni, along with pastors Jared Brogan and David Pickens, recently visited mission churches, homeless shelters and Catholic schools in the U.S. Virgin Islands. What they found was a Catholic Church very different from the one they know.

Fr. Sirianni talks to a man in USVI

“We take so much for granted at home, but in the Virgin Islands, you really see how the Church walks with those who are struggling,” said Fr. Sirianni, who is the pastor of St. Helena School and Church in Edison, New Jersey.

Fr. Sirianni in a church

Having visited Ghana on medical missions, Fr. Sirianni was shocked to see the level of poverty right here in the U.S.

Fr. Yarnell is the pastor of Sacred Heart Church and chaplain of its school in Pinellas Park, Florida.

Fr. Yarnell sits in a church

 “The classrooms are sparse with few resources,” said Fr. Yarnell, who spent 28 years in Catholic high schools as a teacher and technology director before becoming a priest. “Nothing like what I had when I taught.”

And the financial cost to families is immense.

“In the Virgin Islands, families have to work harder to allow students to attend Catholic schools — it’s a bigger burden financially and it’s harder to keep those uniforms crisp and clean — many don’t even have washing machines,” Fr. Sirianni said.

Few resources, great potential

The schools on the islands may have fewer resources, but their potential is abundant. The Catholic foundation of the school is strong, providing lessons on faith and hope for a better future.

“Parents are sacrificing so much to have their children at a Catholic school," Fr. Sirianni said. “They trust the school and know it’s passing on good values.”

Fr. Sirianni leads more prayer in a classrom

“For these students, a Catholic education is a great foundation for the rest of their lives.”

The trip to the Virgin Islands was organized by Catholic Extension as part of our Pastor Immersion program. This program shows pastors in well-resourced parishes the transformative power of the Catholic Church in poor areas.

“This trip opened my eyes to the universality of the Church,” said Father Brogan from St. Peter the Apostle in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Fr. Brogan talks to students

“Sometimes when we think of Church, we have a limited view, which is usually our own parish. But there are people beyond our walls, and it is our responsibility to be in solidarity with them.”

“This trip reminds me that Church is greater than my parish and diocese,” said Fr. Pickens from St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey..

Fr. Pickens talks with students at a school in USVI

Our donors have funded the Diocese of St. Thomas since 1960, supporting Catholic schools, church building, seminarian education, evangelization and hurricane recovery.

In addition, donor generosity recently allowed for a permanent endowment for the diocese’s Catholic schools. This means that future generations of students will continue to receive intellectual stimulation and spiritual enrichment.

“Without Catholic schools, we have no Church,” Father Sirianni said, “We need people educated in the faith to spread it. Catholic schools are the foundation for the next generation.”

A Catholic school student at USVI greets Fr. Sirianni

“The students appreciate being able to attend a Catholic school,” he added. “They know it’s a special place and they’re ready to learn.”

Catholic Extension’s donors have helped support the unique needs of the Catholic communities on the island since the 1960s. With your help, we can continue to make quality faith formation available the next generation.

Two Catholic School students on the US Virgin Islands walk to class

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