August 25, 2023

Catholic Charities Terre Haute celebrates 50 years of giving ‘God’s love’

Patricia Etling, left, Terre Haute mayor Duke Bennett (behind Patricia), Archbishop Charles C. Thompson and Catholic Charities Terre Haute agency director John C. Etling cut a ribbon for the opening of Catholic Charities Terre Haute’s newly constructed foodbank during a ceremony on April 29, 2019, in Terre Haute. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Patricia Etling, left, Terre Haute mayor Duke Bennett (behind Patricia), Archbishop Charles C. Thompson and Catholic Charities Terre Haute agency director John C. Etling cut a ribbon for the opening of Catholic Charities Terre Haute’s newly constructed foodbank during a ceremony on April 29, 2019, in Terre Haute. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Patricia “Pat” Etling recalls her husband John receiving a call decades ago from a gas station at 2 a.m. There was a family with children stranded there with no money for gas or food.

“John said to go ahead and give them some gas, and he’d be by soon with some food,” Pat recalls.

“I said, ‘I don’t understand why people who know they have no money for gas or food go out on the road.’ John said, ‘That’s not for us to ask. They’re here and they need help.’ That really made a mark on me—it’s not ours to ask why, just to help.”

That mentality is still at work 50 years later through Catholic Charities Terre Haute (CCTH), co-founded by John E. Etling and Father Donald Schmidlin (both now deceased) in September of 1973. John served as the agency’s director for 32 years—with help and support from Pat every step of the way.

Through its food bank, Ryves Youth Center, Bethany House temporary emergency shelter, food bank, Christmas Store and other programs, CCTH has helped more than 1.2 million people in need in the Wabash Valley area of western Indiana during the last five decades.

“I’m really proud that it was led by my dad and my mom,” says John C. Etling, who has served as the agency’s director since his dad retired in 2005. “There’s a lot of people better off because of it.”

‘If you want to do it, do it’

Teaching at a middle school and at the former Gibault School for Boys, both in Terre Haute, John E. was familiar with—and troubled by—the problems faced by struggling families.

He asked a religious brother at the school who also served on the archdiocesan board for Catholic Charities, “Why can’t we do something in Terre Haute like [Catholic Charities] in Indianapolis?” Pat recalls.

The religious brother asked the board, “and they said if you want to do it, do it.”

When CCTH began in 1973, “It was a time that local civic and religious leaders were troubled by the growing number of people experiencing hunger, suffering from prolonged unemployment and seeking assistance,” says David Bethuram, executive director of the archdiocese’s Secretariat for Catholic Charities.

“It was acknowledged that a more comprehensive and big-picture approach was needed to tackle the ever-increasing challenges. John E. and Patricia answered that call.”

The agency’s first program began in 1975. Refugees from Vietnam were pouring into the United States, and CCTH was tasked with resettling 260 of them.

“That was something else,” says Pat. “Some were whole families.”

Helping the refugees included providing clothing and food, so the agency began a free clothes closet program and a food pantry, of which the former is still in operation.

The agency’s Christmas Store opened in 1976. For three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it provides 600 families with new clothing, undergarments, linens, hygiene products, household items and toys “so they can experience the joy of Christmas morning with their families and maybe have a little hope for moving forward,” says John.

The Christmas Store, which receives items through individual donations as well as unsold items from certain retailers, also serves year-round as a resource for flood and fire victims.

‘The ultimate goal … is long term housing’

Catholic Charities Terre Haute’s next program, Simeon House, launched in 1978. The program offered community living for those ages 65 and older. It closed in 2007.

But the agency’s next program, Bethany House temporary emergency shelter, is still in operation. Opened in 1980, Bethany House provides temporary housing, food, clothing and case management for families, single women and married couples seeking safe housing.

Some of its first residents were among the 60 Cuban refugees the agency was asked to resettle in 1981—one of whom still works at the food bank, says Pat.

Since it opened, Bethany House has undergone two major renovations and served nearly 35,000 people.

“The average stay is 120 days,” says John.

During that time, the staff help residents develop job skills, and mental health counselors are also available.

“We especially work to help them get some money in reserve so they can withstand emergencies and not go back into the shelter,” John says. “The ultimate goal is to help people find permanent, stable, long-term housing.”

Bethany House also offered a soup kitchen until 2016. That year, it offered sack lunches on weekends and holidays, but moved the weekday full meal operation to Ryves Youth Center.

‘They feel included and loved’

Ryves opened in 1982 in response to a growing need for after-school care for impoverished youths.

“There were three schools in close proximity” in a neighborhood of the former St. Ann Parish, John explains. “The make-up of the community was shifting. There was a lot of unemployment, dysfunction, drug use and poverty.”

Using the basement level of an unfinished church started decades prior by a St. Ann pastor named Father John Ryves, CCTH started an after-school program—named for the priest—for the neighborhood youths, providing them with food and activities.

The program and building—rededicated as Ryves Youth Center at Etling Hall in 2002—have expanded through the years. In addition to activities and a hot meal, the weekday afternoon program for youths ages 5-17 now offers a gym, computer lab, tutoring, educational programs and a full-day preschool for 3- to 5-year-old children experiencing homelessness or other special housing needs.

Ryves has served about 46,300 youths since it was founded 41 years ago.

Jim Edwards served as director of the youth center for 40 of those years, retiring in May 2022. At that time, he told The Criterion about Ryves’ many programs.

But those programs “are things,” he said. “What’s more important is [the children] walk in and they feel included and loved, and they need to feel those things.”

‘We need to be part of the solution’

The year 1983 also saw the founding of another still-thriving program—the Terre Haute Catholic Charities Food Bank. By providing food to distributors, its impact in helping those experiencing a food emergency or food insecurity is felt beyond Terre Haute.

After remaining in the same location for 37 years, the food bank opened a new, 10,000-square-foot warehouse—more than double the size of the former structure—in 2019.

In an interview with The Criterion at the new facility’s grand opening, the agency’s then-development director Jennifer Buell (now CCTH assistant agency director Jennifer Tames), said Feeding America’s 2018 Map the Meal Gap survey showed that one in seven adults and one in five children in the food bank’s “seven-county service area are food insecure—they lack access to adequate amounts of nutritious food to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

That need for food grew exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the food bank never ceased operations.

“We saw so many households and families who were one missed paycheck away from not making ends meet,” said CCTH development manager Jessica Murphy in a recent interview with The Criterion. “When I know that we can provide them a service and do it in a way that is respectful and makes them feel comfortable, I think that’s so rewarding.”

Since the food bank opened, it has distributed nearly 74 million pounds of food, equating to more than 61.5 million meals for more than 1.2 million people. Its latest improvement was the opening of a covered drive-through pick-up space in July.

Looking to the future, John says he would like to see the food bank create “a hub and spoke system, where we would provide food and maintain hubs in

under-served or more remote and rural areas to take the load off of pantries and so people can drive 5 instead of 30 miles to get to food.”

He would also like to see the food bank “move to a network of pantries and partners offering more produce and less processed food.

“We want people to have healthier options, because we know better food choices result in better health care outcomes. We need to be part of the solution by teaching people that there is great value in eating healthier and doing things that have better health consequences from better choices.”

‘An opportunity God put in front of me’

While some might say CCTH was blessed by the Etlings’ impact, Pat says the opposite is true.

“Our kids have always been involved” in the agency, she says of the couple’s 10 children, one of whom died from leukemia two months after the agency started.

Pat retired from her official roles with CCTH in 2009, four years after her husband retired in 2005.

When their son John C., then 45, took on the role as agency director, it was quite different from his educational and professional experience.

“I studied microbiology and environmental science,” he says. “I had a different idea of what my future would be—up until 9/11,” when the Twin Towers in New York were attacked in 2001.

“That was a pivotal time in my life to re-evaluate things. My family and I were living in Michigan. I knew that my dad was thinking about retiring, and he asked if I was interested in moving back to Terre Haute.

“It was a good opportunity for our children to know [his and his wife’s] parents better. I felt that was an opportunity God put in front of me.”

He had big shoes to fill. His dad had received numerous awards in his 32 years of service. There was the honorary doctorate degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in

St. Mary-of-the-Woods, the archdiocese’s Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Respect Life Award, and a Sagamore of the Wabash Award from the State of Indiana, among others.

“But he was most proud of the award he got from the pope,” says Pat, referring to the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Award he received from St. John Paul II via then-Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein in 1995. The award is the highest Church honor a lay person can receive.

‘It’s God’s love that we give’

John E. Etling died on April 6, 2015, at the age of 85.

Pat fondly recalls a comment about her husband by now-retired Father David Lawler, co-paster of the former St. Ann Parish when CCTH began and a good friend of John E.

“Father Lawler said John taught him more about social justice than anyone ever had,” she says.

John C. recalls a conversation he had with his father several years ago.

“I couldn’t help but notice that dad was different,” he says. “There was a certain kind of peace about him.”

When John asked him about the change, his dad said, “I feel like I’m living the Gospel. We provide food, clothing and shelter for people, and that is living the Gospel.”

It’s something Catholic Charities Terre Haute has done for 50 years, with no plans to stop.

“There’s always going to be work to do,” John admits. “But it’s in giving that we really get to demonstrate who we are with our love. And it’s God’s love that we give.”

(Catholic Charities Terre Haute will celebrate its annual Giving Week from Sept. 18-26. To make a donation in honor of the agency’s 50th anniversary, go to All are invited to participate in a free 50th anniversary celebration in the upstairs theater of the Vigo County Historical Museum, 929 Wabash Ave., in Terre Haute, on Sept. 26. Light refreshments will begin at 5 p.m. followed by a short program at 6 p.m. For more information about Catholic Charities Terre Haute, go to

Local site Links: