TYLER – Bishop Joseph E. Strickland has announced that Kathy Shieldes Harry, former principal of St. Gregory Cathedral School in Tyler, will be the new head of Catholic Charities of East Texas, beginning June 1.
“Kathy is a lifelong Catholic and educator in both public and Catholic schools in the Tyler area. Her experience gives her strong connections not just to Tyler, but to the entire East Texas area, and I believe her talents will allow her to continue to develop the wonderful ministries of Catholic Charities of East Texas,” Bishop Strickland said of the appointment.
“Our ability to provide outreach to those in need in various ways has been greatly enhanced by the work of Catholic Charities over the past 10 years, and I believe Kathy will be able to extend the ministries and outreach of our charitable works to every corner of the diocese,” the bishop said. “Her organizational abilities and her energetic approach to the challenges of caring for the people of God will greatly enhance our ability to lead our communities to a higher level of Gospel-centered care for those in need.”
Bill Bellenfant, vice-chair of the Catholic Charities of East Texas board of directors, expressed the board’s pleasure at the choice of Harry as new director.
“I have to say how excited we are to find a talented new director right under our nose,” Bellenfant said. “Kathy Shieldes Harry was chosen from a nationwide field of 10 candidates. Her commitment to serving the poor is well known. This commitment, when combined with her demonstrated management skills and knowledge of East Texas, should serve Catholic Charities of East Texas well into the future. I ask for all to support her and her staff as we ramp up Catholic Charities programs and services across the Diocese while following Pope Francis’ direction to elevate service in this Year of Mercy.”
Harry, 62, is a native of Tyler, a daughter of the late Dr. Berman and Bea Shieldes, and a lifelong parishioner of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. She attended St. Gregory and Bishop T.K. Gorman Catholic schools, and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.
She worked in the Tyler Independent School District from 1976-1992, where she taught math at Bell Elementary, was coordinator of TISD’s Gifted and Talented Program and a consultant for the Region VII Education Service Center.
She was named principal of St. Gregory in 1992, and served in that position until 2015. Under her direction, St. Gregory, Tyler’s oldest private school, was recognized three times as a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, an achievement less than 1 percent of the nation’s schools can claim. The school also built a new gymnasium, a library, an academic complex, and a new playground, added a new transportation fleet, and became equipped with computers. Under her leadership, St. Gregory started a children’s choir, a violin program, a Spanish immersion class for its early childhood program, and an artist-in-residence program.
“I am delighted with the opportunity to serve the Diocese of Tyler through Catholic Charities,” Harry said. “I think that, as Catholics, the desire to serve the people of God, especially those in need, is just bred into us. It’s our baptismal call, breathed into us by the sacraments. And I can’t think of any better way to answer that call at this stage in my life than through Catholic Charities.”
Service was a hallmark of her years at St. Gregory, she said.
“It’s who we are as Catholics,” she said, “and it became who we were at St. Gregory. From the very youngest children in our pre-K classes to our faculty and staff, we constantly looked for new ways to provide service to the people of our community. In the Gospels, Christ tells us to care for ‘the least of these,’ to feed the hungry, tend the sick, help the homeless. That’s our commission, if you will, as Catholics.”
That desire to serve is also a legacy from her parents, she said.
“My parents had a drive to make a difference in the lives of people in need,” she said. “From my earliest days, I can remember my mother making food for those who were sick or had lost a loved one. I grew up seeing them putting themselves out to help others. It was never anything they said, but always something they did. And they imprinted that desire to help on my brothers and me.”
Bea Zwan Shieldes was Lebanese, and that part of her heritage has also left its mark on Harry.
“Because of my Lebanese heritage, food has always been central to my family life and to my faith,” she said. “When we read the Gospels, we see how many times Jesus ate with his disciples, how prominent a role the idea of a meal played. And, for us as Catholics, everything we do and believe starts at the altar, that sacrificial table. We all gather around that table to be nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ.
“And that component, that idea of food, of feeding others, is a very big and basic part of Catholic Charities,” she said. “It starts with feeding the hungry, and then, like a vine, grows and branches out to other avenues of service.”
Discovering where to direct those branches will be Harry’s first priority as new Catholic Charities director.
“I want to meet with all the priests of the diocese, to go into the parishes and ask what their needs are,” she said. “We’re such a large diocese geographically, and very diverse. So the needs of one area won’t always be same for another. My task will be to go and ask the questions, to listen and learn, and then see how best we can meet those needs.”
She also wants to raise awareness of Catholic Charities in the diocese.
“Catholic Charities does so much good work, yet I’m amazed how few people actually know about it,” she said. “Most people know about Catholic Charities in general, as a national organization, but, surprisingly, the fact that we have a Catholic Charities right here in our diocese isn’t so well known. And I want to change that. I want to spread the news of our good works and get as many people as possible involved.”
She said she also wants to widen the network in which Catholic Charities operates.
“We have so many good colleges and university branches here in East Texas,” Harry said. “We have companies, corporations, who are always looking for ways to get involved in their communities. We have a number of really excellent hospitals. So part of my job as director will be to reach out to them, to seek ways that we can work together for the people of East Texas. As an educator, I’m especially interested in working with the colleges. Education is so important, and I want to explore the ways we can integrate that into the work of Catholic Charities.”
She succeeds Nell Lawrence as director and takes the helm as Catholic Charities begins its 11th year of service to the diocese.
Catholic Charities of East Texas was born in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August, 2005, when thousands of people from Louisiana and the Texas coast fled into East Texas to escape the devastating storms. As the diocese’s parishes struggled to feed, clothe, and house the strangers suddenly in their midst, Bishop Álvaro Corrada, SJ, third bishop of Tyler, decided it was time for an organized response to those and other needs, and launched Catholic Charities in September of that year.
It was a daring move, and one fraught with challenges. The Diocese of Tyler is geographically vast, covering 33 counties spread over 23,443 square miles. It is comprised of 70 parishes and missions, mostly small and rural, serving some 120,528 Catholics. It has never been a wealthy diocese, and its largest metropolitan area is Tyler, with a handful of relatively large towns such as Longview, Nacogdoches, Lufkin, Paris, and Texarkana. For years prior to Bishop Corrada’s decree, it was a foregone conclusion that Catholic Charities simply could not work in a poor, rural, and under-populated diocese like the Diocese of Tyler.
And yet, said Harry, the diocese, and specifically its people, has proved the doubters wrong.
“The Catholic people of East Texas are people of faith and generosity,” she said. “We are people who give of ourselves, even when our own means are limited. Wherever you go in the diocese, you see it. There’s a dynamic desire to fulfill the Gospel in every heart, in every parish.
“I remember when we became a diocese, there were doubters everywhere,” she recalled. “We were too small, too poor, too rural, too scattered. But look at how we’ve grown. Look at everything we’ve accomplished. And Catholic Charities is a perfect example of that. We’ve made it work. We’ve found a model that works for us. We’re feeding the hungry. We’re reaching out to the immigrant. We’re providing shelter to the homeless. We’re meeting the needs in our midst, just as Christ commanded.
“And we’re doing it through faith,” Harry said. “The people of East Texas, the Catholics of the Diocese of Tyler, have a desire to see the tree of faith grow and produce good fruit. And Catholic Charities is a perfect example of how the people of East Texas, with limited means but unlimited faith, have made Christ’s call their own.
“We are the little diocese that can,” she said. “That’s who we are. It’s who we’ve proven ourselves to be.”
Harry lives in Tyler with husband Kent, and the two are parishioners of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. They have two children Gregory and Rebecca, and one grandchild.