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‘Burned church ministry’ earns Illinois parish national acclaim for rebuilding outreach

By Kathrynne Skonicki
January 2nd, 2008
Catholic Explorer (www.catholicexplorer.com)

ROMEOVILLE, Ill. (Catholic Explorer) - One man’s initiative at St. Isidore Parish in Bloomingdale has turned into a thriving ministry that has helped thousands of people across the country. Andy Lareau recruited his fellow parishioners in the year 2000 and ignited a firestorm of assistance to burned churches. Father Anthony Taschetta, pastor, commented, “He’s been a conduit of God’s grace.”

In the last few years, Lareau and 140 volunteers of the St. Isidore Burned Church Ministry have worked through the National Coalition for Burned Churches to help rebuild worship spaces in Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. The ministry also put its talent to work after Hurricane Katrina; it assisted in the rebuilding of churches and homes in Pascagoula, Miss.

The coalition honored the ministry’s outstanding work Dec. 14 during its national convention in Atlanta. For 10 years, the NCBC has assisted churches in rebuilding after fires. According to NCBC statistics, over 450 churches in America were destroyed by arsonists in the last three years. The St. Isidore ministry was among 10 other groups from around the country recognized with the 2007 Humble Servant Award, an honor bestowed upon groups that have made a remarkable impact.

Lareau also represented the St. Isidore ministry as he accepted an additional four awards from congregations that it has assisted. Representatives from Spring Beulah Church of Christ (Holiness) in Ruth, Miss., Union Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Opelika, Ala., Antioch United Holy Church in Rocky Point, N.C., and Star Hill CME Church in Gloster, Miss., presented the individual awards in gratitude for St. Isidore’s work.

In the footsteps of Dr. King

After returning home with the awards in hand, Lareau discussed how he felt blessed to receive honors for a ministry he has truly enjoyed. During a telephone conversation with the Catholic Explorer, he referred to one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

“Well, I haven’t been to the mountaintop, but I have been to Commerce, Ga., Hinesville, Ga., Rocky Point, Opelika, Little Rock, Ark., Houston, Gloster, Ruth, Eatonton, Ga., Greenville, Ala., and Selma, Ala., where I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in the footsteps of Dr. King,” Laurel said. The civil rights leader led a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Continuing to speak about the places he has assisted through the ministry, Lareau said, “And what I have found in all those places is that with God’s grace and willing hands there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished.”

The Rev. Dan Donaldson, vice president and church rebuilding coordinator for NCBC, explained that St. Isidore is unique; there are not many Catholic parishes volunteering with the coalition. He told the Explorer, “Andy Lareau and the people of St. Isidore have become great friends and shown commitment to the cause. Andy’s attitude to me has been the most outstanding for someone who has not been a victim.”

In 1995, an arsonist burned Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Humboldt, Tenn., where Rev. Donaldson has been pastor for 26 years. “The Lord stepped in,” he said. The church raised enough funds and talent within a year to have an $800,000 structure completed. Rev. Donaldson added, “The coalition helps let people realize you’re not going through the struggle yourself.”

In addition to leading the St. Isidore team, Lareau serves as a co-chair of the NCBC’s rebuilding committee. He assists them in achieving financial goals, recruiting labor and completing the project. The president of QuickSet—a Northbrook company that produces tripods and other positioning systems—moves the faith communities from the agony of devastation to building with an eye toward the future.

Rebuilding church, rebuilding hope

Oftentimes, the fire does more than engulf the structure. It sometimes reduces to ashes the congregation’s sense of hope, pointed out the Rev. Rose Mackey, program director for NCBC. She said, “When Andy gives them a call, he inspires the hope in pastors and congregations that they didn’t have.”

With a rebuilding plan in place, the coalition assists the churches in arranging for volunteer groups to donate their services, such as the St. Isidore team. For about a week, skilled and unskilled volunteers from St. Isidore install air conditioners, stack cinderblocks, construct framing, install drywall, nail shingles, among others tasks that need to be completed.

The physical labor and donations of supplies are hardly sacrifices for the people of St. Isidore, added Lareau. He said the relationships the faithful form with the people are what make the ministry worthwhile. Lareau said of his fellow parishioners, “It’s really changed their lives.”

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