These Walls: Catholic Charities Diocese of Tulsa

TULSA – After 50 years of steadfast operations across eastern Oklahoma, Catholic Charities decided to consolidate nine north Tulsa sites into one central complex.

Two years ago it completed that move into a $22 million, 72,000-square-foot complex emulating a traditional Southwestern mission. While that 2450 N. Harvard Ave. complex upgraded the nonprofit’s capabilities in a number of areas, paid for without government or United Way aid, the effort still drew some negative repercussions, from its target audience.

“We found that we really had to start over and begin to earn trust,” said Executive Director Kevin M. Sartorius.

The new home helped accomplish that by banding together a wide variety of services under one set of linked roofs.

“Sometimes it seems a bit of a zoo, but other times I would say that it feels like a community, a little microcosm of a community,” Sartorius said.

The assistance unit, where people in need often come first, may see 75 individuals a day, Director of Emergency Services David Hamel said. It averaged 57 families daily in April. Such numbers mushroom around major holidays, which may involve toy and food basket programs.

“We serve over 1,000 people on those days alone,” Hamel said.

About 41,000 people were aided last year by Catholic Charities’ food pantry, clothing warehouse and display center. A volunteer staff of 35 dentists and 98 hygienists help Catholic Charities’ Blessed Mother Teresa Health Care Center provide free dental care for almost all patient needs.

“We’re actually looking to expand,” Hamel said. “We have a couple of more rooms here, so we’re going to open those up so that we can have two more operatories. So we’ll have five total.”

With the financial aid of the George Kaiser Family Foundation and others, Hamel said the center provided $750,000 in work last year, operating five days a week plus Tuesday nights.

Catholic Charities’ St. Elizabeth’s Lodge provides eight two-bedroom apartments and one three-bedroom unit as rent-free transitional housing for homeless, rehabilitating or otherwise struggling families. Hamel said they have but one requirement, that one of the adults hold a working job. With that, Catholic Charities helps the families pay off their bills and learn financial planning skills while building a nest egg for when they emerge from that sanctuary.

Another residential arm, Madonna House, provides transitional living for young, pregnant women, age 18 and above. Other Catholic Charities services include adoption and counseling, education courses on everything from computers to family planning to naturalization, and immigration and refugee programs.

“Our purpose is to be Christ’s merciful love to those who suffer,” said Sartorius, who led the construction program’s fundraising drive. “The way we can do that most dynamically is to have the people in our community who believe in that mission support us and then go out and live that mission.”

Working with a $3.5 million annual budget, Catholic Charities maintains 30 full-time and 30 part-time workers at its north Tulsa base. That’s dwarfed by its 2,600 volunteers, augmented by workers from Tulsa Public Schools, TulsaCommunity College, Family Children Services, Oklahoma State University School of Osteopathic Medicine and other organizations.

“We have every day on this campus 100-plus volunteers easily,” Sartorius said. “We have a natural calling to go and help somebody.”

With all they’ve accomplished, Sartorius said Catholic Charities still has many goals.

“Most of this is on a 100-year plan,” he said. “We want to have a Boy Scout troop here. We want to have a Girl Scout troop. We haven’t done those things yet, but don’t fret about it. We’ll get there. Maybe that’s in year five or six. We want to gradually roll into things so that we can serve people.”

Ironically, one mission Catholic Charities does not take up is proselytizing – although the campus offers a beautiful chapel, daily prayer and other services for those who want them.

“Eighty-five percent of the people we serve are not Catholic, and 85 percent of people when they walk out the door are still not Catholic,” Sartorius said. “We do hope that they have a greater understanding that they’re loved by people in the community and that they’re loved by God. Where they take that is up to them.”