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Donna Hanson shares insights from years with Catholic Charities

As Donna Hanson prepared to retire after 27 years as director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Spokane, about one-third of the 180 diocesan Catholic Charities directors were lay women.  

When she started in 1978, she was the only lay woman director.  About 80 percent of the other directors were priests.

Donna Hanson

Donna Hanson

When Catholic Charities began nationally in the early 1900s, all directors were priests.  Now most are lay men and women, because directors now are expected to have at least a master’s degree in social work or a related field.

Gender and racial inequality framed her early years in Kentucky, and continue to frame her commitment to equality, justice and peace.  With the support of family, Donna pursued her dream to become a social worker and to call for equality.  She said support of the Catholic Charities community and from attending daily Mass at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church sustain her commitment.

We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go,” said Donna, who will continue to promote gender equality and peace as a volunteer with Caritas International.  

In her 41 years with the Diocese of Spokane’s 93-year-old Catholic Charities, the largest private charity in the Inland Northwest, she has learned “of people’s goodness and generosity” in her role of connecting “givers and receivers.”  She draws on the assistance of many long-term volunteers.

When I ask them to help, they say, ‘Yes!  What can I do?’  People are good and want to help and be part of making the world a better place.  They just need to be invited and asked to do something specific and manageable,” said Donna, offering some examples.

Donna Hanson leaves legacy at Catholic Charities

Donna Hanson, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Spokane for 27 years, died Friday, Sept. 23.

“She was open about her impending death from cancer and looked forward to going home to her Lord,” said Monsignor Frank Bach, her predecessor at Catholic Charities.  “She leaves a magnificent legacy of service to the poor, the hurting and the needy.î

At her funeral Mass on Sept. 28, he spoke of her life focused on love of God, family and Catholic Charities.  

“For Donna, God loved the world into existence, so it was her duty to love,” he said.  “She often said, ëWe create the path by walking.’  By doing that, she took Catholic Charities on an incredible journey of service to Eastern Washington.”

She helped start community centers and spun them off.  She guided expansion of low-income housing for farm workers, single parents and disabled people. In addition, she oversaw relocating and rebuilding Catholic Charities’ most visible programs—St. Margaret’s Shelter for Women, House of Charities, and St. Anne’s Children and Family Center.

“Frustrated by the lack of women’s rights in the church, Donna worked in and with the church.  Her insights were respected,” Father Frank said.

“Deeply spiritual, she sought God in people—particularly poor, hurting, vulnerable people—taking literally ‘what you do to the least’ (Matt. 25) and the call to ‘act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with God’ (Micah 6).  She left a wonderful example to emulate,” he concluded.

Her successor Robert McCann, who has worked as associate director since February 2000, asked for prayers to carry on in her footsteps.

Before coming to Spokane, Rob worked with Catholic Relief services, an international disaster relief and development agency serving in poverty-stricken areas of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.  He worked in refugee camp management and evaluation.  He also collected food from rural areas of the United States to transport and distribute to starving people through Harvest for Hope.  He visited more than 20 countries under CRS.

“Catholic Charities is a vibrant organization that operates and creates programs for the most vulnerable members of our community.  It is built on core values of respect, compassion, justice and collaboration,” Rob said.

Catholic Charities is a network for 15 programs serving 44,000 people in 13 counties of Eastern Washington.

For information, call 358-4274.

 In April, she was at St. Ann’s Home when 50 Gonzaga University students were there scrubbing windows and sanitizing toys.

 In March, 12 people at an Immaculate Heart retreat on “Following in the Footsteps of St. Francis” spent a day at Cathedral Plaza Apartments washing windows, vacuuming and turning mattresses for elderly residents.

 Father Mike Kwiatkowski, pastor at St. Joseph’s Church in Colbert, invited parishioners to do a work day rather than spend money on him for the 25th anniversary of his ordination.  

More than 120 went to Summit View Apartments from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. They installed a bench and a garage door, jack-hammered an old concrete container,  power-washed part of the building, weeded, planted flowers, and washed windows and floors.

Marge McFaul asked family and friends to bring coffee for the House of Charity to her 80th birthday party at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  They brought nearly a truckload.  While many sources donate enough food to feed 200 people a day there on less than $5,000 a year, the House of Charity has to buy coffee.

“I have learned:  ‘Ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and it will be opened,” Donna said. “Our mission is to create and constantly expand a network of individuals, institutions, parishes and congregations to provide social services in Eastern Washington based on need, not creed.”

Such volunteer efforts coordinated by staff provided services through 15 programs in 50 locations to more than 44,000 homeless, hungry, hurting people in 2004, according to the annual report.  About 85 percent of the people Catholic Charities helps are not Catholics, consistent with this region’s figures on church affiliation, she said.

Low-income and senior complexes house about 1,800 people in Othello, Walla Walla, Colville, Clarkston, Pullman and Spokane.     Throughout the diocese about 1,700 volunteers help 2,600 seniors and disabled people through Volunteer Chore Services.

In recent years under Donna’s leadership, Catholic Charities has built new facilities in Spokane for St. Margaret’s Shelter, the House of Charity and the St. Anne’s Children and Family Center.

Because about 85 percent of those employed and served by Catholic Charities and Caritas International are women, while 95 percent of the international organization’s leadership are men, Donna will continue her work for gender equality.  

When the National Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors honored her for her social justice work at a recent gathering, she expressed concern that exclusion of women from decision-making is one reason many women live in poverty and need assistance.

She also expressed that concern in several audiences she had with the late Pope John Paul II.

Not until after her 12 years of education at St. Mary’s Academy in Paducah, Ky., did she fully realize the school was segregated.  Now it welcomes children of all ethnic backgrounds.   She hopes for similar progress for women.  

Donna grew up in a culture that expected women to be secretaries or nurses and marry businessmen or doctors.  Then, professional jobs were for men, and women were expected to be at home.

She wanted to be a social worker, because she saw traditional family roles being “unmasked when husbands and fathers died, deserted the family or divorced their wives.  I realized many other women had desires beyond the kitchen or bedroom.”

In 1958, encouraged by family, she enrolled in a women’s Catholic college in Louisville and on graduation entered the St. Louis University School of Social Work.  In her practicum at the city hospital, where 98 percent of staff and patients were African American, she listened to their stories, visited public housing complexes and learned how racism destroyed their lives and communities.

Seeing the struggles of women Catholic Charities serves, she says sexism must join racism as “an insidious evil we must eradicate from our church and world.”

Because most cultures assume men care for women, she said that women experience discrimination and die at disproportionate rates.

“Men cannot protect women from suicide bombs, 30-foot walls, bigotry, genocide or disasters like the tsunami,” she said.

Donna Hanson

Donna Hanson

Considering the thousands of women religious who run hospitals, schools and social service agencies, she said it is crucial for “women to make decisions that dramatically impact our lives.”

In 1991, the Catholic Charities USA president invited her to attend the Caritas International General Assembly in Rome, as one of a few women decision-makers.

Seeing that the imbalance cannot improve on its own, she continues to ask, “How might we bring inclusiveness into our structures, given that gender has been a priority of Caritas for the past six years?”

In 1999, Donna helped organize the Caritas General Assembly Gender Forum, so that delegations from 184 countries could have three representatives instead of two if one was a woman.  Following the forum, the General Assembly established the Gender Working Group.  

As a regional coordinator, Donna helps the group find ways to engage more women in leadership around the world.

Her participation in the 1995 United Nations’ Women’s Conference in Beijing furthered her commitment to work to open doors in decision making to women. She sees progress as women come into solidarity with vulnerable women around the world.

While in the early years people argued whether Catholic Charities should focus on charity or advocacy, she said both are important.  Advocacy reduces need for charity.  Direct service informs advocacy for public policy.

“As always, we are about both charity and justice,” said Donna.  “We have credibility when we advocate about policies because we are doing the day-to-day work with people needing child care, mental health care, shelter and other services.  We know what we are talking about.”

She told of a parish that collected coats for migrant families in Brewster and Twisp.  The third year, one parishioner asked:  “Will we continue to do this or make the changes needed so these people can have decent wages and buy their own coats?”

When people make such connections, come together and say “no more,” Donna said, significant changes occur.

For gender equality to be realized, she believes people of faith must strategize, take risks and make it a priority.  

Then women will be at the table to bring our wisdom to solve challenges in our church and world,” she said.  “We need to challenge the U.S. government about spending too much on the military, rather than spending enough to educate, provide medical care and assure social services for people.

“Women will leave public assistance when they have jobs that enable them to earn a reasonable living,” she said, repeating,  “We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go globally and locally.”

In retirement, Donna plans to pursue her commitments as a volunteer, spend time with grandchildren, do some home improvements and care for her health.  

Diagnosed with peritoneal cancer in March 2004, she celebrated remission in November following treatment.  A routine exam in February, however, found that the cancer had returned, so she began chemotherapy again.

Donna and her husband, Bob, will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in July.

Catholic Charities’ board has a search committee that will do interviews for her successor in the summer.  Donna plans to assist the new director and complete her responsibilities by Oct. 31.

For information, call 358-4250.


By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © June & October 2005