Partners in ministry

New Catholic Charities leader envisions collaboration with priests, parishes

By Bill Brewer

Deacon David Duhamel loves it when a plan comes together.

No, he’s not invoking Hannibal Smith when leading his organization, which isn’t “The A-Team.”

Deacon Duhamel is the new executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, which does more good and comes to the rescue more often in real-life situations than anything Hollywood has created.

One of his most recent examples occurred in January, when heavy snow and ice totaling from six inches to a foot in parts of East Tennessee partially paralyzed some areas.

Deacon Duhamel and Catholic Charities had just partnered with St. Ann Parish in Lancing on a Christmas food distribution project. After the snowstorm hit, Morgan County emergency management services and the sheriff’s office contacted St. Ann parishioners asking if there was any additional food from the holiday food box distribution.

Morgan County emergency crews were in luck. St. Ann did indeed have food left over, and parishioners used the remaining food supplied by Catholic Charities to prepare meal kits. Morgan County officials were able to deliver the food to people who were snowed in, unable to get to stores, and at risk of going hungry.

It was the sort of partnership that Deacon Duhamel has envisioned replicating around the Diocese of Knoxville. The cooperative project with St. Ann was first launched in December to minister to people in need.

“What I want us to do is be a resource for the pastors. I want us to provide some training and capabilities for their parishioners and their staff, but I also want to make sure that they understand that we’re there to help them,” he said. “I think the best example of that recently was St. Ann’s food distribution during the holidays. It was a great partnership where we had some grant funding that we wanted to make use of.”

Deacon Duhamel further explained, “I knew St. Ann from my experience as a deacon. I knew the people up there; they are friends of mine. I called them up and said, ‘You’ve always wanted to do something. What if I gave you the resources to do something. Would you be interested in doing it?’ They all said, ‘Absolutely!’ Every one of the parishioners contributed in some way, shape, or form. Here was a great partnership. We had the resources, but we didn’t have the manpower. They had the connections, they had the marketing, they had the manpower. St. Ann put it all together, and we provided them with the resources and the food to distribute.”

And then the new ministry was unexpectedly called on in a time of crisis for the snowbound.

“That is the type of partnership that I want to do. I want to help figure out how to get those types of relationships established. Immaculate Conception (Knoxville parish) already does a meals program for Summit Towers, a nearby low-income housing complex. All they need is some grant funding to help buy some food because they didn’t have the resources. We do that on a regular basis. We have addressed challenges with the immigrant population in Sevierville. They asked us to come out and do some training. Our program managers in the Office of Immigrant Services went there and did information sessions with parishioners and the population who didn’t know what resources were available to them. Those are the types of partnerships I really want to expand upon in collaboration,” said the deacon and retired military officer.

Deacon Duhamel was approached about leading Catholic Charities of East Tennessee last year after then-executive director Lisa Healy had informed diocesan leadership that she intended to retire by the end of 2023.

He spent four months learning about the organization from Mrs. Healy and leading it. Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre then announced Deacon Duhamel as Catholic Charities’ new executive director on Dec. 20.

When he accepted the position at Catholic Charities, Deacon Duhamel was serving as vice chancellor for strategic planning, school sustainability, and training for the Diocese of Knoxville, a position he had held since last May.

And when he joined the diocese, he brought with him 21 years of experience serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. He retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel in 2013 and accepted a position with the U.S. Department of Energy in Oak Ridge, a position he held until last spring, when he traded “fulfilling” work for the U.S. government that required international travel and many nights away from home for the Catholic Church, travel limited to East Tennessee, and nights at home.

Deacon Duhamel is a member of the diocese’s most recent class of permanent deacons. He and his family are members of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, where he serves.

When Deacon Duhamel considers his appointment to lead Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, he now recognizes how events came together to put him in that position.

“I look at it as maybe all the things lined up properly. So, the executive director, Lisa Healy, had indicated to the diocese a while ago that she was looking to retire. … My role in the diocese was changing. There wasn’t much strategic planning going on in the diocese with the bishop resigning, and I was trying to assist with the schools where I could.

“The opportunity to lead Catholic Charities was presented. Was this something I was interested in? I’ve always told people I came to work for the Church out of a sense of service. There were really no aspirational goals to do any one thing. Wherever the Church needed me, I’m willing to serve. That’s how I interviewed originally with the diocese, and that’s how I continue to look at what I’m doing in the diocese.

“Catholic Charities seemed like a great organization with the services they lead in, with their clients, and their programs. So, Lisa invited me to come and learn about what she was doing, what the organization was doing. It seemed like the right time and a need that needed to be filled. I offered to take it on as an interim role, and I did that for about four months beginning last August. Then before the holidays, they asked if I would consider taking on the job in a permanent role. I said absolutely,” he said.

Until he began working with Catholic Charities last summer, Deacon Duhamel said he didn’t realize the depth to which the diocesan social services agency operates in East Tennessee.

“I was aware of them more from a charitable organization standpoint. But I didn’t really know the day-to-day activities that they did. That was very interesting and eye-opening. The 14 programs they have going here are quite amazing, to be honest. The second thing that really inspired me was Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, for the size that it is—I think we are right around 60 employees—is doing some phenomenal work,” he shared.

He pointed to Catholic Charities’ ministries, such as immigrant services, adoption, pregnancy help centers, food distribution, children’s shelters, housing for the homeless, housing for those with HIV or AIDS, and individual and family counseling.

“I just think the work here is amazing. What I find very interesting, and what I think a lot of people miss, what people outside of our faith community miss, is we’re probably one of the largest nonprofit, private social service entities working in East Tennessee. A lot of the nonprofits that we see are oriented in these urban centers, but no one is really doing the type of outreach that we are doing with the broad programs we have throughout the 36 counties we serve,” Deacon Duhamel said.

“We’re not in every single county, although we could be. And that’s one of the areas we’re looking at for potential growth. How do we expand our core competencies out into the more rural, isolated counties where we may not have a very large presence,” he added.

The scope of Catholic Charities’ work was not overwhelming to him when he joined the organization, but it did give him pause.

“I don’t know if it was overwhelming, but there was certainly a sense of ‘don’t screw it up, Duhamel.’ Lisa Healy and the (Catholic Charities) board of trustees have done a great job of putting this organization on strong financial footing. We’ve done a great job of identifying our core competencies and focusing on them,” Deacon Duhamel said.

And that is where he wants to leverage his skillset and contribute to the organization in a way that begins to build its future.

Deacon Duhamel is underscoring stability as a key component of Catholic Charities’ operations, especially at a time when the diocese is anticipating its next bishop and as the economy puts increasing pressure on those operations.

“I think it’s important to have stability. I looked at my role, and it’s to figure out how to provide that stability, and part of that is to make sure we’re funded properly. A lot of what I’ve been focused on is trying to hire a new director of development and make sure that we maintain our level of funding, but really increase it because costs have gone up and inflation has hit our organization,” he said.

“So, we really need to start looking at growing our contributions and fundraising efforts in order to meet those needs. And all those pressures are there for all the other entities in our Church that are looking for funding and contributions. It’s a tough environment,” the executive director continued.

He pointed out that more than 90 percent of Catholic Charities clients are non-Catholic while more than 80 percent of the organization’s contributions and fundraising comes from Catholics. It also receives funding from grants.

As an example, he pointed to the Knights of Columbus, which have been instrumental in raising money for Catholic Charities’ ultrasound outreach.

Following a November 2021 arson fire that practically destroyed Catholic Charities’ Knoxville offices at 119 Dameron Ave., the building was reconstructed, and the newly renovated offices were blessed by Archbishop Fabre in September. The new facility includes an ultrasound clinic as part of prenatal care where mothers-to-be can see the first images of their babies growing in the womb.

Deacon Duhamel pointed out that the ultrasound clinic in its first few months is already having an impact. Several pregnant women who had decided to have abortions or were open to abortion instead decided to give birth.

Now, Deacon Duhamel and Catholic Charities are planning to take ultrasound on the road.

Through fundraising and donations, the agency of various ministries is putting together a mobile ultrasound clinic that will travel to its pregnancy help centers. According to Deacon Duhamel, Catholic Charities has raised much of the money needed for the mobile clinic but still needs at least $200,000 to finish the project.

Deacon David Duhamel is joined by Sandi Davidson, center, program leader for pregnancy services with Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, and Sasha Cook, nurse manager with Catholic Charities’ ultrasound clinic, which is located in Catholic Charities’ Knoxville offices. (Photo Bill Brewer)

In building Catholic Charities’ relationship with the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, Deacon Duhamel hopes to see the mobile ultrasound clinic accompany the mobile medical clinic to sites around East Tennessee.

“Ideally, when we have our ultrasound vehicle, the ultrasound vehicle could go with their medical bus. If they encounter clients who need an ultrasound for pregnancy purposes, that van would be available,” he said. “In the military, we call that a force multiplier. We look at opportunities where you take the same amount of resources and make a bigger impact.”

Leaning on his military background, Deacon Duhamel has been assessing Catholic Charities operations and ministries over the last few months and is ready to build on what Mrs. Healy accomplished.

From a strategic perspective, Deacon Duhamel is working on institutional organizational goals in which employees will have buy-in.

“There are things that I have identified and areas that I would like to see us work on toward our goals. First and foremost is making sure our employee base is properly compensated. We have a lot of great employees who do a lot of great work. But some of the positions weren’t earning a living wage. So, that’s part of us being fair and just. Next is making sure we have the contributions and fundraising mechanisms in place to grow,” the deacon noted about his goals.

“As I’ve said to the board of trustees, we’ve done a great job of getting this organization to a healthy position under Lisa Healy’s leadership. Now, I want to see where those areas are that we can take our core competencies and take them out to those areas that may be underserved like the rural areas,” he added.

And building on the St. Ann experience, Deacon Duhamel hopes to see Catholic Charities and its employees more engaged with diocesan parishes.

“The third area that I really want to focus on is our collaboration with our parishes. It’s not so much that we’re just ‘the social-service arm of the Catholic Church.’ I don’t buy that. I think that Catholic Charities is in partnership with the parishes to provide services to our neighbors in East Tennessee. So, we’re looking at implementing a Catholic Charities ambassador program to have a Catholic Charities ambassador in the different parishes. We’re going to roll that out in the coming months,” he said.

Deacon Duhamel credits the employees and the organization’s board of trustees for Catholic Charities’ success.

“I see my role as trying to support our employees. I’m doing this out of a desire to serve. Catholic Charities and our diocese believe in this mission, and I really think my job is to set everybody up for success, giving them the resources and helping them to do the great work that they’re already doing, and then seeing where we can grow and how can we help more of our neighbors in East Tennessee. That’s what I’m focused on,” he said.

Deacon David Duhamel, new executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, shows the Divine Mercy image that hangs in the agency’s Knoxville offices. The framed image was hanging near where an arsonist set fire to the Catholic Charities offices. While the building and most of its contents were almost destroyed by the fire and subsequent smoke and water damage, the framed picture was virtually unscathed and is a source of inspiration and faith for employees and clients. (Photo Bill Brewer)

“I am very blessed. We have a phenomenal board of trustees that is walking with me every step of the way. Our board president, Richard Consoli, the vice president, Matthew McGrath, and the others have been very willing to help me and guide me. Whatever I need, they are right there assisting me. With the leadership team we have, I believe we’re poised for some great successes,” he continued.

Deacon Duhamel also credited Mrs. Healy for “doing a phenomenal job setting us up for success.”

“It’s not a stretch to see us grow and do the great things that we’re going to be doing,” he said.

Deacon Duhamel relies on an image of the Divine Mercy, which hangs inside Catholic Charities’ recently renovated offices. The image previously was hanging on a wall in the original offices very near where the arsonist set fire to the building on Nov. 28, 2021.

While nearly all of the building was consumed or damaged by smoke and water, the Divine Mercy image was virtually unscathed. He also has a relic of St. Teresa of Kolkata that he keeps near him at work.

“We’re really blessed that we have their inspiration in the work that we do,” he said.

The work that Catholic Charities of East Tennessee is doing far exceeds anything portrayed on TV or in movies.

But if Deacon Duhamel were going to give his co-workers a different moniker, he believes “The A-Team” would certainly fit the bill based on the job they do.

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