Franciscan Father Ponchie Vasquez from the Diocese of Tucson (left) and Antonio Trujillo from the Diocese of Gallup (right) are among eight finalists for Catholic Extension’s annual “Lumen Christi” award. (Photos courtesy of Catholic Extension)

CHICAGO (CNS) — Catholic Extension has announced eight finalists for its Lumen Christi Award, which recognizes Catholic leaders “for bringing the light of Christ” to poor communities across the United States.

Among the finalists for the 2017-2018 are a Franciscan priest from the Diocese of Tucson and a principal of a small mission school in the Diocese of Gallup, both of whom are serving Native American communities in their respective dioceses.

Franciscan Father Ponchie Vasquez of the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona, is pastor of the San Solano Missions with the Tohono O’odham Nation at the U.S.-Mexico border west of Tucson. Living on a vast stretch of desert the size of Connecticut, the Tohono O’odham, or “desert people,” come together in 40 churches served by the missions.

Antonio Trujillo from the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico, has revitalized the small St. Joseph Mission School in San Fidel, New Mexico, which serves mostly Native American students. Trujillo saved the school from the brink of closure. By refocusing “on its true mission to be a beacon of hope and faith,” he hired teachers dedicated to the mission and increased enrollment.

“Our Lumen Christi finalists have answered Pope Francis’ call to all Catholics to be ‘missionary disciples’ and are proclaiming and living the Gospel in America’s ‘peripheries,’” said Fr. Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension. “They are an example to all of us.”

The award is the highest honor bestowed by the Chicago-based organization, the leading national supporter of missionary work in poor and remote parts of the United States.

The Latin phrase “Lumen Christi,” taken from the Easter Vigil, means “Light of Christ.” Since 1978, the award has honored individuals or groups who demonstrate how the power of faith can transform lives and communities.

Other finalists for include:

  • The Missionary Carmelites of St. Teresa in the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, have been ministering to Latinos in three parishes in southeast Texas for the past 12 years. The four Mexican sisters develop lay leaders, hold retreats, provide religious education and reach out to the rapidly growing Hispanic Catholic population.
  • Sr. Therese Maria Touma, based in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, serves young Maronite Catholics in youth and young adult ministry. She belongs to the Servants of Christ the Light, a new religious order, in the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, New York.
  • Ruben and Rosario Cano and the Hispanic Lay Ecclesial Ministers of Utah, in the statewide Diocese of Salt Lake City, have been serving the rapidly growing Latino Catholic communities that make up 70 percent of the state’s Catholics. The Canos are lay pastoral ministers at San Rafael Mission Church in the remote mining community of Huntington, Utah. They lead religious education and community outreach at their church and travel throughout Utah.
  • Fr. John O’Grady is serving with the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services as an Army chaplain at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, where he provides pastoral ministry to active duty military and their families. He accompanies those in need of pastoral care and has brought the gift of healing to the spiritually, physically and mentally wounded.
  • The St. Gabriel of Mercy Center in Mound Bayou in the Mississippi Delta, the poorest region in the poorest state, is led by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. The center is in the Diocese of Jackson. The sisters partner with local organizations to provide services such as the St. Gabriel Closet, parenting and GED classes, a computer learning lab, senior services and summer youth programs.
  • Fr. Enrique Herrera in the Diocese of Monterey, California, is the son of a migrant farmworker who traveled regularly from Mexico to work in California’s Salinas Valley. Today, Fr. Herrera is the pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Greenfield in Salinas Valley, a parish comprised mainly of immigrants, many from Oaxaca, Mexico. Father Herrera gives special attention to guiding young people not only through faith formation but also through soccer and basketball leagues.

The Lumen Christi winner will be announced later in the year.