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CATHOLIC COMMUNITY SERVICES GETS MUCH-DESERVED RECOGNITION

Last Friday, Gov. Mike Leavitt signed a proclamation making April Catholic Community Services Month, in honor of the agency's 50th anniversary.

The proclamation is nice but not necessarily newsworthy. On any given day, on a state and national level, a variety of special-interest days or months are noted, from Citrus Day to Child Abuse Prevention Month.A half-century of service to a community, though, is an entirely different story. Especially when that half-century touches so many lives in such a variety of ways.

Catholic Community Services' first annual report from April 1945 showed an operating budget of about $80, used to pay for the sandwiches that were passed out daily to homeless people who gathered at the Cathedral of the Madeleine.

Feeding the poor is still at the heart of CCS' mission. Only these days, they're serving lunch at the CCS-owned St. Vincent De Paul Center, where more than 500 needy people daily pass through the line for a midday meal. Most of the people who rely on the center for lunch are staying at the Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center across the street.

According to Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, the agency's northern Utah office also provides groceries to hungry families and homebound senior citizens.

Other programs touch - and change - lives in many different ways. Pregnant women find shelter in a home atmosphere at Villa Maria.

Men who are substance abusers receive help and direction at St. Mary's Home.

Catholic Community Services is the refugee resettlement agency for Utah. They operate a large adoption service. And they collect and redistribute household items, food and clothing to families in need.

In Ogden, CCS runs housing for people with AIDS.

The agency also provides office space to groups like Habitat for Humanity, which uses volunteer labor and donated materials to build or rehabilitate housing for the poor in its community.

If people are in crisis and there's a need for services, CCS is apt to be involved in the effort to provide it.

As government looks for ways to cut back on services for people in need, it seems to be looking to churches, religious organizations and other nonprofits to meet larger portions of the need.

During the recent legislative session, Catholic Community Services was among the groups invited to appear before the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee to talk about what it is doing in the community. The agency was selected for two reasons: its impressive track record for making a positive difference and the fact that it doesn't receive money from the Legislature, so it had no ax to grind in appearing.

The appearance also promoted the subtle message that government doesn't have to do everything for people. Others can help.

It wasn't exactly a news flash. In Utah, at least, religious organizations already share a great deal of the burden - and the joy - of caring for people with basic needs. And thousands of their congregants donate hundreds of thousands of hours, as well as their talents and treasures individually.

The exciting thing is, they do it in a cooperative, coalition fashion.

While Catholic Community Services operates St. Vincent De Paul Center, other churches, mosques and synagogues provide a huge share of the staffing for the meals. Presbyterians and Lutherans make sandwiches or serve food. Mormons donate milk and also provide volunteers. The Jewish community prepares Christmas dinner for the homeless.

It goes on and on.

In fact, very few congregations and denominations in this valley are not actively involved with other churches to provide time, counseling, supplies, suggestions and love to people in crisis.

Some things - like the hunger of a child - just transcend differences in theological doctrine and approach. And groups like Catholic Community Services have stepped up to make things happen.

Happy anniversary.