HOUSTON (CNS) — Texas first lady Cecilia Abbott “has lived and embodied the important lesson of faith, a faith that she learned from her parents and immigrant grandparents,” Catholic Extension president Father Jack Wall said Jan. 28 at a ceremony to honor Abbot.
On the eve of National Catholic Schools Week Jan.29-Feb. 4, the national fundraising organization presented her with its Spirit of Francis Award for her “special commitment to Catholic education in Texas” as well as for her “lifelong devotion to service and to philanthropy, in particular to the Catholic Church in Texas, both of which she loves so well.”
Abbott, the wife of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, has a passion for Catholic education that has its roots in her career as a teacher, vice principal and principal in Catholic schools throughout Texas, according to Catholic Extension. Even as first lady, she continues to serve on several Catholic school and university boards, including at the Cathedral School of St. Mary in Austin, where she was the principal for five years.
Her grandparents and her parents taught her, Father Wall said, “that you not only need to receive a good education, but you are then meant to pass on its values and blessings to others and dedicate your life to helping and uplifting others through education and through works of charity.”
As the state’s the first Hispanic first lady, he continued, Abbott “has been building bridges and reaching out to all the people of Texas, encouraging us toward that common family through her own example to volunteer and to make a difference.”
She is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants — Leonara and Augustine Segura — who settled in San Antonio before 1935.
Referencing Abbott’s “Texanthropy Initiative,” Father Wall quoted her as saying, “I am working with all Texans to bring together the two things that I am most passionate about: Texas and philanthropy.”
The Spirit of Francis Award has three namesakes: St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis and Father Francis Clement Kelley, who founded Catholic Extension in 1905.
In accepting the award, Abbott said she was humbled to receive the honor and “particularly touched” by its connection to St. Francis, “one of my favorite saints.”
She recounted that, while growing up in San Antonio, she loved to play in her church, which was across the street from her home, with her dog Pancho. She said it was her dog’s favorite place, “so much so that it was not unusual for an announcement like this to be made at Sunday Mass: ‘Would the Phalens please remove your dog from the church.’ My parents must have been mortified, but I am telling you, I know that St. Francis, with his love for all animals, would have understood.”
Abbott also quoted a line from the Prayer of St. Francis: “It is in giving that we receive.'”
“I believe that we are each called to service, to give of ourselves,” she said. “That service may simply be sharing a warm smile or a warm meal. That service may be sharing a few extra hours or a few extra dollars but that service changes lives. That’s why my top priority as first lady is promoting service and volunteerism.”
The awards dinner in Houston was the first of its kind in Texas and drew more than 150 guests. Serving as co-host of the event was retired Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston. Other bishops in attendance were Bishop Curtis J. Guillory of Beaumont, retired Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer of San Angelo, and Bishop Oscar Cantu and retired Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Catholic Extension is the leading supporter of missionary work in poor and remote parts of the United States. It has had a strong presence in Texas ever since its first group of grants in 1906 included two church-building projects in the state.
At one point or another, all 15 Texas dioceses received support from Catholic Extension, but today eight Texas dioceses are among the 90 so-called “mission dioceses” that receive funding from the organization. They are Tyler, Beaumont, Amarillo, Lubbock, El Paso, San Angelo, Laredo and Brownsville.
The Diocese of Brownsville is both the poorest diocese in the country and the diocese with the second highest percentage of Catholics in its area’s population. With a median age of only 26, its population also is one of the youngest.
According to Father Wall, Chicago-based Catholic Extension has supported almost 2,000 building projects for churches and church facilities in the Lone Star state. Over the past 112 years, adjusting for inflation, it has provided more than $162 million for church-building projects, seminarian education, other leadership development and many different ministries in Texas dioceses.
At the dinner, Father Wall announced that Abbott had selected to direct the more than $100,000 raised during the event toward the cause of supporting seminarian education in Texas. Catholic Extension funds scholarships for 70 seminarians from mission dioceses at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston as well as Assumption in San Antonio, and Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving.
Archbishop Fiorenza called Catholic Extension “an absolute bloodline for the Catholic Church” in mission dioceses.
He called it “truly one of the most important organizations in the church here in the United States. Without it, many dioceses would not have the lifeblood to be able to be a strong, vibrant Catholic community and to proclaim the Gospel and bring the teachings of the church to the people.”
Without it, he added, the church in Texas and throughout the West and the South “would be enormously impoverished and would be very weak.”