HOUSTON – Tony Boutelle has been making the 15-hour trip from Savage, Minn., to Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church for five years to see his buddy Estavan and help him with his reading.
“This is my sixth trip and it was great to see him,” said Boutelle, a member of St. John The Baptist Catholic Church in Savage, just south of Minneapolis. “He and I have both grown up a lot.”
Boutelle, 19, is a student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry. Boutelle’s application to be accepted at UNC included an essay on his annual trip to Houston and his desire to serve.
“It means so much to me to come here every year and do this work,” said Boutelle. “It has shown me what it takes in life to be happy and that helping others is one of those things that makes you happy.”
Boutelle was one of 41 St. John The Baptist parishioners who made the 997-mile trip this year.
Andi Little, Director of Faith Formation for St. John, said this marks the 10th year the church from Minnesota has made the trek to Mississippi. She said they leave blessed every time.
“Our youth do a Vacation Bible School in the morning and a reading program in the afternoon,” said Little. “Our older parishioners usually do some kind of construction project.”
VBS at Heart of Mary saw more than 100 kids take part in Wet Wednesday with the reading program serving about 40 youngsters each afternoon. The adults installed a handicapped accessible shower for a family in the county and did a few improvements around the church on Jackson Street.
St. John is a church of over 900 and Heart of Mary – well, it is much smaller.
“When this got started in 2003 we saw this as something special,” said Little. “We are not out to change the world, just the life of one person at a time.”
Little said they try to keep their agenda simple.
“We just tell them about God’s love at Vacation Bible School, do some crafts and eat a hot dog,” said Little. “The afternoon is when we do our reading program and when we really start building relationships.”
And Father Bob Dalton said building those relationship has been the key to the success of this mission each year.
“They have gotten to know us and the people here,” said Dalton. “They have learned who we are and these kids have seen a shining example of what the church is to be about.”
And Dalton said the missionaries take away as much as they give.
“We always have a fiesta at one of the homes in the county and there is always a lot of fried chicken, homemade Mexican food and lots of fellowship,” he explained. “They came here Monday and were gone Friday and it was way too short. But they served well and you never know whose life was changed.”