Parishes accompany families seeking asylum in Chicago

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Parishes accompany families seeking asylum in Chicago

Parishes throughout the archdiocese have stepped up to help newly arrived migrant families start their new lives in Chicago. Here we feature the work of Old St. Pat’s, St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy and St. Giles and Assumption-St. Edmund and Mother of the Americas parishes. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Anne Durkin washes dishes while Joseph Graciosa Sr. and his son Joseph Graciosa Sr. work on plumbing. Parishioners from Old. St Patrick Parish set up an apartment for migrants in Pilsen on July 31, 2023. Volunteers from the parish’s Immigrant and Refugee Ministry worked on plumbing, cleaned and set up a crib as progress continued on setting up the apartment for the family. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Jeanne Plunkett and Anne Durkin wash dishes while Penny Davoren takes a call. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Mary Ann Mcniece talks with Penny Davoren about plans for one of the bedrooms. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
oseph Graciosa Sr. and his son Joseph Graciosa Jr. assemble a crib in one of the bedrooms. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Penny Davoren places stuffed animals in the bed. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Enrique Pilarte from Scalabrini Immigrant and Refugee Services assists an asylum seeker with documents during the shower program and breakfast. Members of Oak Park churches including St. Giles and Catherine of Siena-St Lucy and Assumption-St. Edmund volunteered to serve breakfast and assist asylum seekers at the recently dedicated emergency shelter at St. Catherine of Siena church site at 38 N. Austin Boulevard on Aug. 8, 2023. The parish offered the former rectory space to the asylum seekers, who have been living at the area police station, to take showers and have breakfast every Tuesday and Thursday. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Matt Brophy, Operations Director at St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy and St. Giles Parish, takes a phone cal, during the breakfast. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Margaret Burk and Margie McKenzie help an asylum seeker (far left) look for clothes. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteer Bob Wielgos talks with Margie Rudnik during the breakfast. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Sister of Mercy Mary Catherine McDonagh makes toast for those asylum seekers who stopped for breakfast. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cristian Garcia, a seminarian at Mundelein who interns at Mother of the Americas Parish, becomes emotional during a Holy Thursday Mass where Cardinal Cupich washes the feet of Venezuelan refugees on April 6, 2023 at Holy Name Cathedral. Garcia led the parish’s outreach to migrant families in Little Village. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cristian Garcia, a seminarian at Mundelein who interns at Mother of the Americas Parish, prays during a Holy Thursday Mass where Cardinal Cupich washes the feet of Venezuelan refugees on April 6, 2023 at Holy Name Cathedral. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Since men, women and children began arriving in Chicago last year seeking asylum after crossing the southern U.S. border, parishes throughout the archdiocese have mobilized to accompany them on this new journey.

Chicago Catholic spoke with members of several parishes that are working with families to provide stable housing and assistance.

Mother of the Americas Parish, 3047 W. Cermak Road

Last November, when tensions were escalating at the southern border and many families were being sent to Chicago seeking asylum, a family arrived on the doorstep of Mother of the Americas Parish in Little Village.

It was seminarian Cristian García’s day off and a volunteer kept calling him.

“I like to ignore my phone on my day off, but she kept calling,” García said. “I figured it was really, really important and she said, ‘Yes, this family doesn’t have anywhere to go. I can’t take them. Could you please take them to a shelter?’”

The weather had already turned cold.

“It was starting to snow. They just sort of popped up out of nowhere and said, ‘We don’t have anything,’” García said.

It was a mother, father and little girl. According to García, the young girl seemed traumatized.

The family members cried tears of gratitude because they had made it to Chicago, which was their destination. They were also grateful that God had provided for them, yet again, García said.

“When they started talking about their daughter, who was 3 years old, going for days without eating, they would get teared up,” he said.

Before taking the family to a shelter, García bought them a steak dinner from a Mexican restaurant.

“That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship,” García said. “That really motivated me to want to do something, because it seemed like these people were not stopping [coming] and that we were just putting a Band-Aid on this problem and not really doing anything to fix the problem.”

García comes from a mixed-status family from Mexico and is sensitive to the issue of people without papers arriving in and living in the United States, he said. Also, last November he went on a mission trip to the border with the University of St. Mary of the Lake through its class on immigration and Catholic social doctrine.

“That’s very near and dear to my heart. When I was crossing the border just doing like a hiking trip, you could see spilled jugs of water that were wrapped in black tape to sort of keep the reflection from being seen. Just really heartbreaking things,” he said.

García is still in contact with the family, but he wanted to do more, so he reached out to a friend at Catholic Charities. Mother of the Americas Parish, where he is an intern, received a $20,000 grant from the agency.

The parish decided to help 10 families find housing and provide them with two months of rent and pay utility costs.

“Because what I really felt was needed was just getting them out of the shelters,” García said. “If there’s something that I know about migrants, it’s that there is a lot of fear associated with what is permissible and what is illegal and the consequences of living in the shadows.”

The parish has helped nine families so far. Once the 10th family is helped, the parish will turn to providing gift cards to the families. García would like to see more parishes assist asylum seekers.

“If one parish can help 10 families and get them out of shelters and into stable housing. … We did something to provide a Catholic response to this crisis,” he said.

Old St. Patrick Parish, 700 W. Adams St.

In May, a third grader at Francis Xavier Ward School spotted a family — a mother, father and 2-year-old boy — sitting in the rain in the park across the street from the school’s campus at Old St. Patrick’s Parish.

The child asked her father to see if the family was OK. Her father learned that the family was Venezuelan and had just arrived, and did not have a place to stay. The school family provided the Venezuelan family immediate shelter at a hotel and then connected them to Old St. Pat’s Parish.

“Good for this third grader whose parents clearly taught her what responsibility is. And they’re not members of Old St. Pat’s. They are members of a Baptist church. Their church is also helping that family,” said Maureen Hellwig, a longtime member of Old St. Pat’s Immigrant and Refugee Ministry.

The parish was able to move them to a home.

“Good friends of Old St. Pat’s who live up in Wilmette welcomed this family into their home,” Hellwig said.

Eventually, the immigrant family found an apartment on their own in Pilsen, where many people speak Spanish.

“We’ll be providing the first six months’ rent,” she said. Volunteers also set up the apartment with furniture and household goods.

Old St. Pat’s was able to respond quickly because for four years they have been helping refugees resettle in Chicago through Catholic Charities.

They started with refugee families from Syria and Myanmar, then took on asylum seekers from Colombia, Honduras and Venezuela.

Because of the support of parishioners, the parish has not had to apply for the Catholic Charities’ Parish Family Sponsorship Program, which provides $10,000 grants to parishes to accompany families for six months, Hellwig said.

“Old St. Pat’s is really a regional faith community. We’re not your typical neighborhood parish,” Hellwig said. “I wouldn’t call it a wealthy community, but we certainly have some wealthy people in our midst and a lot of just really generous middle-income people who donate to this cause.”

When the parish accompanies a family, a volunteer liaison keeps in touch with them regularly.

“The idea is not to set up an apartment and say, ‘Good luck.’ We stick with them and the family liaison does get to know them a little better and brings back reports on how they are doing and what they might need,” Hellwig said.

Since resettling their first Venezuelan family, the parish is helping another family referred to them by Catholic Charities. 

St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy and St. Giles Parish and Ascension-St. Edmund Parish, Oak Park, and Blessed Miguel Pro Parish, Berwyn

Parishes in the Oak Park area have been helping asylum seekers for many months in various ways. They already housed one family in an apartment owned by a parishioner.

They have also helped a group of young men who were living in the shelter in the former rectory on the campus of St. Catherine of Siena Church to find apartments for their families, said Margie Rednik, a parishioner from St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy and St. Giles.

“We’ve now been approved by Catholic Charities for some funding from them to host another family,” Rednik said.

Volunteers regularly take food and water to migrants living at the Chicago Police Department’s District 15 station and have partnered with the Police Station Response Team to provide help.

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, when the shelter in the former rectory is closed, parish volunteers bring migrants from the police station so they can shower and have breakfast. They also offer fresh clothing, including new underwear and socks, and have games for children.

Father Carl Morello, pastor of both Oak Park parishes, has visited the families and said it “brings joy to my heart” to see how happy they are for something as simple as a shower.

“I thought to myself, this is twice a week. We shower every day and they are getting it twice a week and are so grateful and they are so happy,” he said. “It makes us happy to be able to use that building, which is unused right now, for such a nice ministry.”

Case managers come to do initial screenings with the migrants who are at the shelter, Rednik said.

“All of this is wonderful and we love doing it. It’s so much fun. These little kids are beautiful,” she added. “But we really need a bigger, more sustainable program. Housing is such a huge issue.”

The parishes regularly network with other local organizations to help asylum seekers, Rednik noted.

“This has blossomed into such a great network of people of different faiths and denominations all reaching out to help,” said Morello. “It’s such a beautiful example of community working together.” 


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