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Archives Catholic Charities opens new Watertown office

April 29, 2020

By Deacon Kevin Mastellon
Contributing Writer

WATERTOWN – 44 Public Square was the home to the Greater Watertown NY Chamber of Commerce for decades in the late 20th century. Public Square is the city’s center. It does not get as much foot traffic as it did in the early part of the century, but it gets plenty. The executive director of the chamber back then, Mary Parry, would occasionally complain because of the amount of foot traffic into the chamber offices from “the Square.” People would stop in looking for all sorts of things, and some of those things even pertained to the work of the chamber. Many of the visitors needed help in the form of food, clothing, cash. Eventually the chamber board decided to relocate for a variety of reasons.

Now, several years later, 44 Public Square is the new home of Catholic Charities’ Watertown presence. That same “off the street” traffic is still there and is perfect according to Catholic Charities Executive Director Deacon Patrick Donahue.

“It was really a no brainer,” Deacon Donahue said. “We were not very visible.”

The Catholic Charities office was on Clinton Street, a side-street in downtown Watertown. It was in a one-story building that housed accountants, lawyers and dentists.

“Our office was right next to Watertown Savings Bank on Clinton Street,” Deacon Donahue said. “More people were going into the bank looking for our office than found us right off. The space was never suitable for what we wanted Catholic Charities to be. We became less accessible, less visible and, I think, even some of the pastors from outside of town who came through Watertown kind of lost track of where we were.”

Finding Catholic Charities in Watertown is now, hopefully, much easier. The development of Catholic Charities has been a work-in-progress. From the agency’s own web site, we learn “Catholic Charities was established in Northern New York in the Diocese of Ogdensburg in 1917. Since then, it has grown from a small agency dedicated to the care of the elderly, unmarried parents, and infants into a multi-service agency. It has added services for couples, family, children, youth, and communities.”

Born of the attention given to child labor abuses in the early 1900s, the national organization was founded in 1910 at Catholic University of America as the National Conference of Catholic Charities. The organization changed its name in 1986 to Catholic Charities USA. Since religious orders of women established many of the first schools, hospitals, and social service organizations in the United States, it is not surprising that many of those organizations developed into today’s Catholic Charities agencies. Most of the executives of Catholic Charities in this diocese were priests, until Sister Donna Franklin, a Daughter of Charity, was appointed in 1995. She served as Executive Director for 23 years.

The agency created in the Diocese of Ogdensburg has responded to the specific needs of the people in the diocese, changing focus as needs changed.

“It started out helping impoverished families, more neighborhood based, an extension of the Catholic church,” Donahue said.

At the time it was created, at the end of World War I, the agency was concerned with orphans, broken homes and family issues. Over the decades, the focus would shift to adoptions, foster care and operating orphanages. Then came a period of concern for the mentally ill, those who were developmentally disabled, individuals recovering from addiction and abuse services.

“Catholic Charities across the US became a Catholic version of community-based services,” the current director said, “competing for all the money that was out there waiting to be distributed.”

That funding started to disappear late in the century, and Catholic Charities in the North Country had to start shrinking. The organization had offices across the diocese in numerous communities, but many of them had to close. Programs, like adoption services, were abandoned.

“I think we had moved away from our mission: to reach out to impoverished individuals and families and to advocate for them,” Deacon Donahue said. “The Cabrini (Health Foundation) money that came in last year has, in many ways, allowed us to return to our core mission.”

Catholic Charities in the Diocese received $1.7 million in the 2019 funding cycle of the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation Grants.

“This funding allows us to form partnerships with existing community-based agencies, work with our parishes, existing services but using a casework model,” Donahue said. “We are not specialists. We are generalists. Somebody comes walking into one of our Catholic Charities offices, we are going to sit with them and find out what’s going on; and it usually is multiple things, multiple issues.”

Catholic Charities works with the individuals to address their issues using a variety of internal and external resources.

Deacon Donahue was appointed the staff of Catholic Charities in October 2017. He shadowed Sister Donna Franklin, who he succeeded, until January 2018, when he assumed the executive director position. Donahue brings over 25 years of experience as a caseworker and administrator at private, public and church agencies, including Catholic Charities, in the mental health and human services field.

The Catholic Charities organization in our Diocese has its principal offices at Wadhams Hall in Ogdensburg and in Watertown, Malone and Plattsburgh.

“We have a presence in all eight counties of the Diocese,” Donahue said.

The focus is a bit different depending on the location. In Glenfield (Lewis County) for example, the agency has a migrant workers service. In Ogdensburg, the staff continues to operate and grow Seaway House, a clubhouse atmosphere that assists individuals with persistent mental illness. In the Malone area, Catholic Charities works in supervised foster care and parenting education in addition to the on-going soup kitchen. There is an RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program) in Essex County.

The agency has 44 employees across the diocese. Donahue administers a budget of about $4 million, almost half of that from Cabrini grants. Administration of the funds amounts to 12% of the total, below the national range of 15% to 40% for non-profits.

A major annual fund raiser for Catholic Charities is the Mother’s Day Appeal in the parishes of the Diocese, an appeal that will be delayed this year due to the ongoing pandemic. In his letter to potential donors, Deacon Donahue said, “Catholic Charities has never done this alone and cannot do so now especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We need our volunteers, our supporters and our benefactors to be part of this mission of charity and justice.”

“We try to apply every dollar to people’s needs,” Donahue told the North Country Catholic.

The new visibility in Watertown is likely to result in increased demand for Catholic Charities services and dollars.

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