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Archdiocese of Baltimore appoints first-ever director of community affairs to strengthen work with the needy

Archdiocese of Baltimore appoints first-ever director of community affairs to strengthen work with the needy
Mary Ellen Russell, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference in Annapolis since 2008, will become the archdiocese’s first director of community affairs for the diocese. (Courtesy of Archdiocese of Baltimore)

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has appointed a veteran lobbyist to a new position focused on strengthening its work with communities in need.

Mary Ellen Russell, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference in Annapolis since 2008, will become the archdiocese’s first director of community affairs for the diocese.

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Russell will oversee outreach to business leaders, elected officials, clergy members, nonprofits and others to strengthen the Catholic Church’s service to those communities.

Her work will focus mainly on Baltimore but also address the needs of other communities in Maryland, Sean Caine, a vice chancellor for the diocese, said.

The church has long provided services in Baltimore and other communities facing severe ongoing socioeconomic challenges. Archbishop William E. Lori said the new office should amplify the efforts.

“The church already provides tremendous assistance,” he said. “I believe we can do even more by investing in a position dedicated solely to working strategically to strengthen our partnerships wherever possible, especially in communities where the needs are the greatest.”

The idea for the new position had its origins in the aftermath of the rioting sparked by the death of Baltimore man Freddie Gray while in police custody in 2015.

In the days following the unrest, Lori met with the heads of all the city’s Catholic institutions, including schools, charities and hospitals, and posed a question: How can the church work more effectively in addressing the longstanding societal problems the Gray crisis had brought into the open?

The goal was to explore how better to leverage the church’s strengths on behalf of people dealing with systemic, economic and other disparities, whether they’re Catholic or not, said Caine, adding that the question was very much in keeping with the emphasis the head of the global church has placed on reaching out to the marginalized wherever they are.

Archbishop Lori “has followed the example of Pope Francis to challenge those within the church to see how we can improve lives and communities as part of our mission of serving others, regardless of their faith,” Caine said.

The new position is the latest example of several initiatives that derived from those meetings, Caine added, including a workforce development center at St. Edwards Church, the creation of a new parish-based Safe Streets program, and plans for the first new Catholic school the city has opened in more than half a century, all in West Baltimore, a part of the city Caine has said the church is working hard to help transform.

Russell’s first challenges will include creating an online database of services the church offers in Baltimore as well as an app for locating them.

Caine said the projects will give Russell a chance to deepen existing relationships, build new ones and establish the sort of contacts that will help her identify unexplored areas of need in the future.

The Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental provider of social services in Maryland, most notably through Catholic Charities, which offers more than 80 programs for vulnerable and needy individuals in 200 locations across the state.

Russell has represented the interests and positions of the church for more than two decades.

The Maryland Catholic Conference advocates for the state’s three Catholic dioceses — Baltimore, Washington and Wilmington — in Annapolis. As executive director, Russell worked to build relationships with lawmakers and coalitions.

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“There are so many impressive programs operated by the church and other organizations in the Archdiocese,” Russell said in a statement. “”It’s exciting to contemplate how much more we can accomplish by enhancing our opportunities to work even more collaboratively.”

She begins July 1.

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