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Martin and Mary Swanson

swansons Martin Swanson became a Catholic in 1998 and since then, he and wife Mary have devoted the last 21 years to serving their home parish, St. Catherine of Alexandria in Riverside, and the Diocese of San Bernardino in various ministries. 

 The Swansons are certified master catechists and they co-coordinate liturgy and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) at their parish. They are also Advocates in the Diocesan Tribunal and Martin is an active member of the Knights of Columbus as a Fourth Degree Knight. 

 The couple also has a history of serving the community beyond the church boundaries. Before becoming a family law attorney, Mary worked for several years in law enforcement and probation. Martin served in the Air Force as an air policeman while also studying law. He went on to work for the Riverside County Public Defender’s office until 1997 when he was appointed to the bench as a Superior Court Judge. During his term, he helped to establish and conduct the first Juvenile Court Dependency Mediation Program, an alternative dispute resolution process that focuses on the best interests of the child as well as family preservation and strengthening. Martin retired from the bench in 2006 and Mary retired from private practice the same year. 

 In 2004, Martin lent his professional legal expertise when he was appointed Chairman of the Diocesan Review Committee. This group was tasked with helping to implement the original U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Martin led the committee through the yearlong process. He remains one of four lay members of the committee, which also reviews all allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Church personnel that are brought forward and makes recommendations to Bishop Barnes as to their credibility.

 “As a result of what this Diocese did when the committee itself and our process was audited about a year and a half later, the Diocese of San Bernardino was third in the nation in following the charter and implementing it for the protection of children and youth,” said Martin. 

 Martin and Mary are also actively involved as members of the Catholic Charities San Bernardino-Riverside Board of Directors. Mary served as Board Chair for two recent fundraising events, Make A Difference and Music Brings Hope, both of which were successful in receiving widespread community support. 

 “We established about three years ago to try to get the message of Catholic Charities out to the community so that people would know it,” said Mary. “We raised a good amount of money but the biggest thing to me was that a lot of people learned about the work of Catholic Charities.” 


Valley Missionary Program

vmp For 35 years, the Valley Missionary Program has deepened the faith and transformed the lives of more than 15,000 people through its retreats and small faith communities. 

 Holy Cross Father Jose Pawliki founded the program while ministering to the Hispanic community in the Coachella Valley in 1983. He believed that offering a way to nurture a person’s faith after encountering Jesus in a three-day retreat was imperative. So he created the Valley Missionary Program, modeled after the spirituality of Mexican immigrants and based on the ideas of friendship with the Lord and love shared in small faith communities. 

 In 2008, Father Guy Wilson of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, traveled from Southwest Georgia with two others to participate in a retreat the program offered in Coachella. 

 “My intention was to introduce the encounter in our own missions,” said Fr. Wilson. “I was greatly impressed by the lay leadership that had been developed by the Holy Cross Congregation. I was then deeply appreciative that the same Congregation and the Diocese invited my Congregation to assume the work of the Valley Missionary Program at Our Lady of Soledad Parish in Coachella.” 

 The program is offered in stages. The first is a three-day retreat experience that allows people to enter a personal Encounter with God and with the Church. The program also offers small faith communities that allow participants to be a part of a local community that gathers weekly to deepen the retreat experience and nurture their faith. There are currently 150 small faith communities in the Coachella Valley. 

 Formation is also offered as a way to engage in faith formation and spiritual growth through the faith communities, parish activity and diocesan ministry programs. If the participant wishes to take the next step, they are offered opportunities for apostolic works where they are missioned to build up their families, parishes, local environments and accompany new retreatants in their own encounters. The program emphasizes outreach to non-practicing Catholics as well as direct service to the poor and neglected. 

 Recently Valley Missionary Program participants supported the efforts of the Diocese to provide transitional outreach to asylum seeking migrants from Central America.

 “Most of our parish leadership and ministers come from the VMP experience,” said Fr. Wilson. “At least seven deacons serving in the Diocese came from the VMP. An additional five men are presently in diaconal formation from our parish.” 

 Fr. Wilson added, “Many have talked about the conversion that came from their encounter, especially men…their testimony is moving on how they became aware of their roles as Catholic husbands, fathers and faithful. Many speak of the impact that the program has had on their steps in confronting addictions and the life-giving benefits of the small faith communities and programs through the VMP.” 

 The future of the program is bright with the development of more retreats and activities for young people and plans for expanding the dormitory and meeting halls to provide more married couple retreats. 

 Malie Hudson is a freelance writer based in Riverside.