National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 26, 2003

Sr. Kenneth Quinn, right, receives hugs from hundreds of supporters at a farewell prayer service Sept. 7.
-- Teresa Douglas
Ministry shattered in California community

Power struggle breaks apart ecumenical effort

Visalia, Calif.

Whatever his intentions, Fresno Bishop John Steinbock has broken the heart of a compassionate community within this town of 100,000 in California’s central farming region.

The broken heart was on display Sunday, Sept. 7, when tears flowed openly and without shame as Daughter of Charity Sr. Kenneth Quinn entered the city convention center to the celebratory sounds of the teen mariachi orchestra.

Catholic Charities of the Fresno diocese had insisted it -- and not the center’s governing board -- controlled Visalia’s Good News Center, an outreach to the poor that Quinn operated. The board yielded. Quinn and two other nuns have been removed by their order from ministry at the center as a result of the diocesan decision.

At a farewell prayer service held at the convention center, Quinn wrapped her arms around people, one after another, in a crowd of about 200. And wept. These were admirers and supporters from 13 different churches, 10 of them Protestant, and groups like the American Friends Service Committee, and families she had worked with.

The only Catholic priest present was retired 86-year-old Msgr. Joe Balker, who’d driven down from Fresno to the town he once served.

The Visalia (pronounced Vy-SAYlia) Good News Center was built in the early 1980s to serve the area’s poorest people. Quinn became executive director in 1984.

Within two decades the center, now with a $500,000 annual budget, included a 32-unit shelter for women and children, a six-days-a-week hot lunch program, a five-days-a-week clinic, a legal aid program, counseling services, outreach galore and a pool of some 500 volunteers.

It is Quinn’s monument. Or was.

The Good News Center, as it existed a month ago, had its origins and initial support in the social commitment, willing muscle and fundraising abilities of a few Catholic families. It broadened rapidly after its founding to become a citywide ecumenical endeavor. The city government itself provided spare buildings, and gave support wherever it could.

Not any more, said Mayor Jesús Gamboa at the celebration for the three departing Daughters of Charity -- Quinn, Sr. Baptista Casper and Sr. Caridad Tatoyon. Gamboa told NCR the city has just made available an empty former police building as a health clinic setting for the new organization, Visalia Ecumenical Charities, quickly formed by the dazed community to pick up services for the poor the diocese is unlikely to be able to sustain.

The shattering of Visalia’s single-minded ecumenical efforts for the poor seems to grow out of issues of control and ownership. “I hate to say it, this is my church,” said Alica Cortes, “but this is about money. It’s about financial control.” Cortes, with her husband, Gilbert, has volunteered with the sisters for decades. The Corteses are among the earliest Daughters of Charity volunteers who have already shifted their volunteer energies to the new Visalia Ecumenical Charities.

The diocese

Steinbock announced last fall, when seven Catholic Charities personnel were laid off, that Catholic Charities is “nearly $1 million in debt.” The agency board reported grant money was being returned because the diocese could not raise matching funds.

Here is the story as best it can be pieced together:

The Daughters of Charity in Los Altos Hills, Calif., declined to expand beyond their short faxed statement (see box). Individual sisters had been told not to comment to the media. At the convention center, one sister, with a smile, pulled an imaginary zipper across her lips.

Philip Traynor, executive director and a former member of the board of Catholic Charities, said that in the 1960s Fr. Roger Mahony, now cardinal of Los Angeles, asked then-Fresno Bishop (the late Cardinal) Timothy Manning to establish Catholic social services in Visalia.

“Manning invited the Daughters of Charity, and they came [to rural Farmersville],” said Traynor “In the ’70s and ’80s there were some financial problems with Charities because Mahony was very, very supportive of the United Farm Workers and most money was coming from large agricultural interests,” said Traynor, “so they kind of cut us off.”

Later, said Traynor, the Visalia program changed its name to the Good News Center and did well raising money in the local community.

Under Steinbock in the 1990s, he said, the diocese urged “all Catholic Charities to get as much local support as it could. The effort was toward local autonomy in terms of financing the various programs.”

In 2002, Traynor said, the Good News Center told the Catholic Charities board it was not part of the agency and “they wanted us to divest ourselves and for them to take over. I was on the [Charities] board,” said Traynor, “and I was kind of stunned, to be honest. We turned them down, basically.”

Subsequently, the Daughters of Charity met with Steinbock and the Charities’ board and offered to assume 51 percent of the control. (The sisters already supported the clinic with some $80,000 a year.) Catholic Charities would have 25 percent control, the local community 24 percent.

The offer was rejected.

Steinbock, in a July 31 open letter to the Visalia community and Good News Center employees, volunteers and supporters reprised those details, and said that he had asked the Daughters of Charity to send a replacement for Quinn, since she said she would not serve under Catholic Charities’ control.

The Daughters instead withdrew from the diocese the three sisters working in the Good News Center.

The community

Understandably, the Charities/Steinbock version does not sit well in Visalia with those who built the operation. The founding Catholic families and the ecumenical community rebutted the diocesan version in a full-page advertisement in the Visalia Times-Delta Aug. 25.

Pat Felts, one of the original group that created Visalia Catholic Social Services in the late 1960s claimed that the diocese never contributed much to the organization. Further, she said the diocese relinquished any role in or control over what became the Good News Center when, in June 1982, Fresno Catholic Charities wrote to the Visalia Catholic Social Services telling them the agency had to take responsibility for its financial future.

In the early 1960s, she said, a group of Catholic families who were members of the Christian Family Movement who gathered for Bible study “started doing things to help the poor. [When] St. Mary’s [the local parish] didn’t have any money, they’d call us. Catholic families stranded in Visalia, zip, we were there, with gas, money, food.”

Years later, in the 1970s, they met Sr. Ursula Peternel, a Daughter of Charity who found a ready reception when Mahony sent her to Visalia.

“So we formed Visalia Catholic Social Services,” said Felts. “Catholic Charities paid office rent, $102, we paid the utilities, and Juanita Hurlbutt and Ruth Bremer and others took turns driving Sr. Ursula everywhere. She didn’t even have a car.”

The Rev. Paul Thomton began volunteering with Peternel in 1979, the year he arrived as pastor of Visalia’s Christ Lutheran Church.

Peternel was serving hot meals from a two-bedroom donated house. Thomton approached the owner of an empty supermarket building. The man agreed to sell it. “I took six weeks from my ministry to raise money in what is probably the most generous town I’ve ever seen.” Six weeks later he had commitments of $132,000.

The building cost $325,000 with a further $50,000 to equip the kitchen and create a thrift store. It was paid for in four years. The Good News Center was born out of the old Visalia Catholic Social Services.

Peternel died in 1984. “I was honored to preach her funeral service in St. Mary’s,” said the Lutheran pastor.

Under the leadership of Quinn, the Good News Center never ceased expanding its services. Former Good News Center president Chance Kirk described Quinn’s two decades in Visalia as those of a “powerhouse nun” available “24/7 to the poor.”

By the mid-’80s, three town doctors led by Dr. George Tiss opened a medical clinic in a tiny trailer. A retired judge and two attorneys staffed the legal aid. When Tiss died, the two building contractor sons of Anthony Mangano constructed a new clinic in honor of their late father and Tiss.

But there were early symptoms of a diocesan move toward the finances, according to volunteer Cortes. By 1995, the three Daughters of Charity in Farmersville sustained the work by running bingo and pie sales. The bishop sent in a priest.

Recalled Cortes, “He said he was going to run the bingo and that the bishop wanted the money the sisters had in bingo savings.” They complied. “The whole town went into an uproar, and the bishop wrote a letter that the sisters were to leave Farmersville,” she said.

At that time, too, the Daughters of Charity appealed to Steinbock in vain. Added Felts, “The Good News Center was never a power struggle between the Daughters of Charity and the bishop. Their [July] proposal was a last ditch attempt to keep the Good News services going without interruption.”

The future

Will Catholic Charities be able to sustain the clinic operation? Thomton doubts it.

“I don’t see a lot of the medical people volunteering, which they’ve done in the past, great with free X-rays, medicines, surgery, everything. They were committed to the local [Good News Center] event and they’ll start it up again through Visalia Ecumenical Charities.

“The bishop’s mistake,” said the pastor, “was he never understood that the whole Good News Center was really a community event. At least 13 churches were involved,” he said, “three of them Roman Catholic, but most of the money was from Protestant churches -- with Catholic money from generous individuals, not the churches. And a lot of that Catholic commitment was due to the Daughters of Charity leadership.”

Thomton’s fear is that the donations are going to be substantially less. “A lot of Protestants who thought they were giving to the Good News Center didn’t see themselves as giving to Catholic Charities. And my understanding is basically the Fresno diocese has never put any real money into it.

Thomton prays the Good News Center under Catholic Charities will continue to feed of the poor, and run the shelter. The thrift store subsidizes those operations to the tune of $90,000 a year. “But the volunteers were committed to the Daughters of Charity, not the diocese,” he said, “and the volunteers are upset.”

Steinbock has the legal cards, but some wonder if his actions jeopardize a ministry the entire community has come to hold in high regard.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

Daughters of Charity statement

In a meeting on July 22, Bishop John Steinbock directed Sr. Margaret Keaveney, visitatrix of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, and Sr. Mary Ann Tippett, assistant of the Province of the Daughters of Charity, to remove Sr. Kenneth Quinn, who has served as executive director of the Good News Center in Visalia since 1984.

The Daughters of Charity serve as a community of three sisters at the Good News Center. The Daughters have been privileged to serve the people of Visalia through the growth of this center over the last 19 years. All three sisters will leave this center on July 30.

The Daughters of Charity want to express their gratitude to the people they have served and those who have made this service possible. It is with great sorrow that the Daughters leave this beloved ministry and each of you.

-- The Daughters of Charity

Editor’s note: A copy of this message in Spanish was also made public by the Daughters of Charity.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 2003

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