US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The dying wish of a youth ministry pioneer

By Meinrad Scherer-Emunds | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I recently received an e-mail from a long-time friend of U.S Catholic, whom I got to know seven years ago when I worked with her on an article she wrote for us on Catholic youth ministry (see “Does the church put faith in our youth?" ). Lisa Calderone-Stewart has devoted much of her life to youth ministry and to her special passion of turning urban teens into leaders for the church and for society.

In her July 2003 U.S. Catholic article she shared some valuable lessons she had learned through the Tomorrow's Present program she runs in Milwaukee. The program, initially conducted through the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, has focused on developing ways “to effectively invite young people into leadership roles in the church, to develop their skills, and to lead them toward a future of involvement in church life.”

Lisa wrote the e-mail to share some very sad news: “I have been diagnosed with terminal cancer—bile duct cancer in the liver—the ‘miracle’ treatments that often give people another year or two did not work with me; I was not able to tolerate them. So I am off all treatment for now (the last chemo-embolization treatment took 2 months for me to fully recover, and that first month was very painful) and just waiting for the disease to do its thing.”

Despite a dire diagnosis (she was told in late October that she had only six months to live) and increasing weakness and tiredness, Lisa has continued to work in the youth ministry she has built. She writes, “I’m doing OK... the only pain is very mild. It is becoming more frequent, but not more severe—a blessing indeed. A few months ago I'd feel the pain maybe once a day and think, ‘What's that? Oh, right. I have cancer. That must be it.’ And now it happens maybe once an hour or so.”

As her health is continuing to deteriorate, Lisa is acutely aware that she has little time left. She has been busy giving away her possessions and has been telling the people close to her what she loves about them. In addition, she has been working on finishing a semi-autobiographical novel that is the story of a woman who starts working at an urban community center, a story, she says, "about relationships and trust and what happens in the city."

But most of all, in the precious short time she has left, Lisa has set herself an ambitious goal: to ensure the future of Tomorrow’s Present. She’s been training her two sons Michael and Ralph, and her friends and volunteers from Tomorrow’s Present on the ins and outs of the program. And together with them she has started a legacy fund to raise enough money to insure that the ministry will be able to hire a full-time successor and that the project’s groundbreaking research on youth leadership will continue.

Over the past few years, after the initial grant funding ran out and the archdiocese wasn’t able to provide financing, Lisa has had to do her own fund-raising for the program, which is located at Milwaukee’s House of Peace, a community outreach center run by the Capuchin Franciscans. She’s hoping that recent local media coverage will now help in securing the program’s continuation. Earlier this week a Milwaukee TV news program ran a segment on Lisa’s struggle, and other local media have picked up the story as well (see articles in Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel and BizTimes ).

“I am doing OK with the dying part,” Lisa writes in her e-mail. “I only wish I had a few more years to build up the reputation and support for Tomorrow's Present.” Earlier she told the Journal Sentinel that no one is responsible for fixing everything wrong in the world. “I just have to take my little corner and do what I can.”

Please keep Lisa and her wonderful ministry in your prayers. To learn more about Tomorrow’s Present , visit its website, where you can also find out how to contribute to Lisa’s Legacy Fund .

In addition to the youth ministry article, Lisa also wrote a very interesting piece on interfaith youth work in our January 2006 issue and co-authored an article on intergenerational religious education for our June 2008 issue.

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