Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, speaks during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore Nov. 13, 2019. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Sr. Donna Markham, OP, PhD, is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. The first woman to lead the organization, which was founded in 1910, Markham was formerly the president of the Behavioral Health Institute for Mercy Health. She is an Adrian Dominican sister and a board-certified clinical psychologist. Catholic Charities USA is a membership organization representing more than 160 diocesan Catholic Charities member agencies, which operate more than 2,600 service locations across the country. Last year, the organization served more than 12 million people in need. Commonweal contributor John Gehring interviewed Sr. Donna Markham about how the organization is responding to increased need during the coronavirus crisis.


John Gehring: How are you holding up and keeping hope during these difficult times?

Sr. Donna Markham: We are doing as well as possible at Catholic Charities USA, working remotely from our homes and continuing to try our best to assist our agencies, most especially those workers on the front lines of direct service. These are the people who are present to so many people on the streets in very dire straits, lacking shelter and food. You’re absolutely correct that we must look for signs of hope in the midst of this crisis. Our hope is buoyed each day by wonderful people and groups who have reached out to help us: corporations, private philanthropy, other nonprofits, and ordinary people who simply want to help.

JG: Outside of the federal government, Catholic Charities is the largest social-safety-net provider in the country. What specific increase in needs are you seeing now with so many people losing jobs and struggling with the broader economic impacts of this pandemic?

DM: There is a great need for food. With more people losing their jobs, this has created a groundswell of need at our food pantries across the country. Many have stepped up to help us and we are incredibly grateful. For example, we have received a large donation of food from the Church of Latter Day Saints and that will enable us to help stock seventy-five food pantries. Many companies, like Kraft/Heinz, Walmart, dairy farmers, the Dairy Board, and others, have provided direly needed food products. These needs are ongoing, however, and we will certainly need more help as these weeks unfold. Another significant need is to protect our caseworkers and frontline staff from getting sick. Until now, they have been interacting with people in our shelters and kitchens without any type of protective gear. Fortunately, we have been able to contract with a company that is manufacturing non-medical grade masks that we will distribute this week to the Catholic Charities agencies working in the “hot spots.” Another company, Gorilla Marketing, with their partner company HIT, are donating a portion of proceeds from t-shirts they are manufacturing to assist us.

Another serious need is for Catholic Charities to continue to provide counseling to people who are increasingly anxious and depressed. We are managing this through telehealth sites that are HIPAA compliant, but this is difficult in some of the more rural areas where electronic support is not available. To put this simply, we are accustomed to mobilizing the entire Catholic Charities network in natural-disaster situations where staff are deployed to an area that has been hit by a storm or a fire or an earthquake. Now, the entire country is experiencing disaster and no one is really able to be deployed elsewhere. 

JG: Congress recently passed a $2 trillion stimulus package in an effort to respond to the fallout from the crisis. What kind of help did that provide for Catholic charity organizations and was it adequate funding?

If no assistance is provided to someone who is sick, the spread of the virus will continue.

DM: At this point, we haven’t seen any of this rescue package. Our agencies with fewer than five hundred employees will be able to apply for the small-business loan to assist with payroll, but my fear is they will be faced with layoffs before any of the money becomes available. The banks many have contacted this week indicate that they are not prepared to handle these loans yet. Most worrisome is that our larger agencies are currently ineligible for any assistance from this package. That means places like Chicago, New York, Brooklyn and Queens, Los Angeles, and others with over five hundred employees are in a very precarious situation in areas that have been hit hard by COVID-19. We’re hoping that there will be a fourth bill that might assist nonprofits like these.

JG: The homeless are particularly vulnerable right now. How has advocacy and service changed with this population?

DM: I’m amazed at the tenacity and creativity of our agencies that provide shelter for homeless individuals and families. Given the need for social distancing, some shelters have had to decrease the number of people they can accommodate; others are constructing secure tent villages that are situated with appropriate space between them and common bathroom spaces and showers. Hygiene products and safety are at the top of the list in operating these facilities. We await the distribution of funds from the Emergency Food and Shelter board that will provide help for the homeless population. Our advocacy team at CCUSA is actively engaged in the determination of the distribution of these funds.

JG: Given the public-health requirements to social distance, what creative measures have local Catholic-charity offices taken in order to serve people in this unprecedented environment?

DM: Our agencies are adapting practices in every dimension of their usual work to keep social distance. A concrete example is the transition from serving kitchens to take-away meals for people who need food. This alleviates large groups gathering in our dining places. 

JG: Volunteers are a critical part of your national network. Can people still volunteer or is that on hold for now?

DM: My best advice for people who may want to volunteer is to contact your local agency and find out how you can help. Needs differ across the country, so it would be best to connect with the local Catholic Charities and see what you might do.

JG: In a letter to the Trump administration, Catholic Charities USA recently joined the US bishops’ conference migration committee, the Catholic Health Association, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network to urge the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to remove barriers to healthcare access for immigrants, and requested that DHS review all immigration-enforcement activities and operations. Why is this so critical right now?

DM: This is a matter of public safety as much as it is a moral issue. If no assistance is provided to someone who is sick, the spread of the virus will continue. This is simply a matter of common sense. More than that, however, is it is a means of protecting human life.  Without compassion and medical help for others, regardless of their status, I fear we are complicit in people’s deaths. 

JG: If people want to help Catholic Charities right now what is the most important thing they can do?

DM: First of all, I would humbly ask that you pray for our workers on the streets who are tending to millions of suffering people at great personal risk. I know how appreciative they are for your prayers. Also, we know this is a time of great financial strain but should you have the means to assist your local Catholic Charities agency or wish to help us at a national level, we are deeply grateful.  We also appreciate bringing to the attention of our legislators the plight of our large Catholic Charities agencies that are ineligible for any government help at this time. Ironically, these are located in the large urban areas that are now the “hot spots” and they are faced with huge needs.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.