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While preaching a retreat in Missouri, Father Jim Sichko stopped by a restaurant for an early lunch. An elderly, well-dressed man told him, “This is my table,” and sat down, bringing out a sack lunch for his meal.
As the men chatted, it turned out the fellow was the co-founder of a successful national corporation, and he seemed very interested in Fr. Sichko’s philosophy of Catholic education—that it should be about “the mission, not the tuition”—and in his school’s practice of never turning away a student whose family cannot afford the cost.
The men met for lunch several times, and as Sichko concluded the retreat and prepared to return to his parish, the man presented him with an envelope. “People think I’m cheap, because I eat a sack lunch everyday,” he told the priest, bidding Sichko not to open the envelope until he was headed back to St. Mark’s church in Richmond, Kentucky.
Doing as requested, Sichko waited until he was aboard his plane to gaze at what he hoped would be a big donation to his school.
He found a check for five dollars.
Disappointed, Sichko nevertheless, “as my parents taught me,” sent a handwritten note to the man thanking him for the donation and thought no more about it.
A check for more than $45,000 soon followed.
Sichko cannot explain the motivation for the man’s unexpected donation, but he suspects that his expression of gratitude, even for so small a gift, played a big part in it.
It’s a great story, and a great lesson in gratitude, and Sichko has much to feel grateful for. The pastor’s annual “Evening Among Friends” fundraiser attracts the likes of Dolly Parton, Martin Short, Harry Connick, Jr., Regis Philbin, Donny Osmand, Laura Bush and many others, and the evening of fun and entertainment keeps St. Mark’s parish and its school running, and the tuitions for needy students covered.
Fr. Jim talked to Aleteia about his school, the kids, his stories and his annual star-studded fundraiser.
What was the situation when you arrived at St. Mark’s? How has it changed over the years?
The school was a strain on the parish budget, so I needed to build stability into school finances. Many families were enrolled but delinquent in tuition. Also, the Catholic Identity in the school was limited. Without a stable base you lose good teachers and all thoughts are about staying alive, not innovating. With a more solid financial base we have introduced new computers, and teachers have the freedom to pursue creativity.
What are the main problems facing Catholic education now?
Occasionally, we are tempted to get nervous about the future, but our faith tells us when we pursue mission and not just tuition God will open doors and the means will come. With such a diverse group of students from numerous countries and ethnic backgrounds, St. Mark’s is living the Body of Christ and not just talking about it. The main problem is keeping that vision alive—it makes St. Mark’s different from other schools. When you have a vision about the Gospel and can explain it, people respond. Keeping the parishioners informed and involved is key. People are proud of St. Mark’s because they can see the excitement of the students and the quality of education.
What role do the faithful have in sustaining Catholic education?
Without parish involvement there would be no “mission without tuition.” The collections for the school are proposed as investments in children, in the future, in the faith.
You’re known for very effective fundraisers. Can you tell us about your approach and well it works?
My approach is through story telling: lived experience mixed with some very blunt storytelling. I try to empower individuals to understand the whole concept of Stewardship; that everything we have is from God and goes back to God.
Finally, I am not embarrassed to beg. I am not embarrassed to share across social media and in person, the need that exists in our Mission Diocese of Lexington. I am grateful that for the past 12 years [at our “Evening Among Friends” fundraisers], people of all walks/ways of life, faith, ethnic backgrounds have come together for an evening of food, fellowship and entertainment.
What is the role of storytelling in conveying the faith?
People love storytelling. From the moment we are born to the moment we die — people love sharing and learning from experience. Jesus told stories—parables and from these stories he had an underlying lesson. The same for me, as preacher, teacher and missionary (and now was just appointed by Pope Francis as a Missionary of Mercy for the Holy Year), I use real-lived experiences in helping the parish and those abroad see the real face of Christ in our children—and be challenged by it as well.
Fr. Jim Sichko’s book is titled Among Friends: Stories From the Journey.
Tom McDonald blogs at “Wonderful Things,” thomaslmcdonald.wordpress.com