By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

A year or so ago Bethany Welch was working for a non-profit think tank in New York as a policy analyst, and the pay was very good. Then she heard Providence Center, a little outreach program at Fourth Street and Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia, was looking for an executive director. The pay wouldn’t be nearly as good, but she prayed over it, applied and was accepted. And now, at 31, here she is.

Welch’s journey to North Philadelphia was much more spiritual than physical.

As her given name implies, she comes from good, solid, God-fearing Protestant stock. Originally from Rochester, N.Y., she earned her undergraduate degree in graphic design and communication from Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester.

As part of her studies, she did an internship with a hunger relief agency and discovered advocacy and social justice was her true calling. After college, in 2003 she joined Americorps VISTA, the national anti-poverty service agency, and that’s what first brought her to Philadelphia to help set up the not-yet- opened archdiocesan-sponsored Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center in the Kensington area.

Working in a Catholic environment was a new experience. She’d grown up in a culture that taught it was Christian duty to help the poor, but poverty was usually caused by one’s own shortcomings.

“Suffering was associated with sin and bad character,” Welch said.

This was not the viewpoint of the Catholics she was working with, especially the women religious who looked upon poverty as mostly a justice issue.

“They stayed with the work for years, never seeming to burn out. They were sustained through the Eucharist,” Welch said.

It was through this example, and under the spiritual direction of Father (now Msgr.) Hugh Shields, that she entered the RCIA Program and was received into the faith at Visitation B.V.M. Church on Easter 2005. Although her family has since come around to her decision, at that point they disapproved, and most of her moral support came through the parish and especially through the Handmaid Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

After her VISTA service, Welch worked while earning her master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from the University of Rochester and her doctorate in Urban Social Policy from the University of Delaware. But she never forgot North Philadelphia.

Providence House, which takes its name from Our Lady of Providence – a special devotion among Puerto Rican Catholics – was opened by the Holy Child Sisters after St. Edward the Confessor Church, formerly at Eighth and York streets, closed in 1993.

“It was a way for the sisters to keep a presence in the neighborhood,” Welch said. “Sister Nancy Hagenbach was the founding director, and we still have one of the founding sisters, Sister Peggy Doherty, on staff.”

A principal work of Providence House is conducting English language classes for the huge number of immigrants living in the area, mostly Latino, but many other ethnic groups too, she explained. Another work is an after-school program for about 85 children in kindergarten through seventh grade, one she is proud to say is accomplished with the assistance of teen mentors drawn from the community.

Because immigration issues are very much a part of the difficulties the new (and sometimes not so new) arrivals face, Welch works hard for immigration reform, as does Visitation B.V.M. Parish, where she is a member of the parish pastoral council.

Keeping the whole operation running commands all of the skills she’s learned through her experience, and much of the funding comes from former St. Edward parishioners and the Holy Child contacts.

Like the sisters before her, Welch is committed to the work, helping the poor, especially immigrants, and fighting for better treatment for them. It’s God’s work, and it’s her vocation.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.