Global ministry helps migrants at Melrose Park parish

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Global ministry helps migrants at Melrose Park parish

Seniors take part in activities at the Scalabrini Immigrant and Refugee Services Inc. center at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Melrose Park, on Sept. 7, 2023. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Luis Romero, Ana M. Zuritra and Gloria Alonso exercise to a video on Sept. 7, 2023. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Marlene Fontenelle enjoys a corn hole game with Ruben Ramirez. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Ruben Ramirez enjoys a corn hole game with Marlene Fontenelle. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Carlos Ruiz works with Magdalena Ruiz who has dementia on a game of dominos. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Seniors enjoy a game of Mexican Bingo (Loteria). (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Helping immigrants is nothing new for the Scalabrinian priests who serve at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Melrose Park. Helping migrants is the main charism of the congregation, which is active in 35 countries on five continents.

In 2007, the parish opened a center on its campus to help immigrants and refugees.

Under the auspices of a separate non-profit, Scalabrini Immigrant and Refugee Services Inc., offers something most parishes can’t: a one-stop shop for services that immigrants, both newly arrived and more settled in, might need.

The center itself welcomes guests and helps determine what they need and how the center can help, said interim executive director Michelle Noordhof, a Lay Scalabrinian.

Then volunteers or staff can refer people to service providers on-site, including Ascension Health, Catholic Charities’ Immigration Services, Family Focus, HAS Substance Abuse Counseling, the Resurrection Project, Sarah’s Inn domestic violence counseling and Solutions for Care, which helps people with disabilities apply for assistance.

It also houses a food pantry and a senior program that offers activities and lunch Monday through Friday, and volunteers who can help with simpler tasks, such as filling out school forms.

“They come to us because they trust us,” Noordhof said.

The center serves more than 10,000 people each year, said Scalabrinian Father Leandro Fossá, Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s pastor.

“They come in, and the first thing we assess is their legal situation, whether they need food, if they need money for rent,” he said “They come because we are church. They feel safe. They feel that we direct them to the right people. There are a lot of people who take advantage of immigrants.”

Fossá said the congregation arrived at the parish in 1905 with a mission of helping the Italian immigrant community. The area began welcoming more Latino immigrants in the 1980s.

Around 2000, it became clear that the parish needed to offer more help, and the center opened under the auspices of the parish in 2007. It recently became its own non-profit organization.

The services offered at the center all are available  to migrants in Chicago through other agencies, Fossá said, but its more difficult for people to access them in the suburbs around  Melrose Park.

Still, the center is helping some of the migrants who have recently arrived in Chicago, helping with those staying at the Chicago Police Department’s 15th District and with about 180 migrants at one temporary shelter in Chicago.

“Once they know us, we connect them to people in the parish,” Fossá said, adding that some end up becoming parishioners.

The Scalabrinians have experience working with immigrants and migrants all over the world, he said.

“We have shelters on the borders around the world,” he said. “We work with seafarers, we have missions in parishes, and in parishes in some places we have centers where they can build a life.”

Our Lady of Mount Carmel has regularly scheduled services in Spanish, English, Portuguese and Italian, Fossá said.

Most of the new migrants speak Spanish, and for many, their first entry point for services is coming to worship.

“They come to Mass, then you see the reality,” Fossá said. “They want to be fed spiritually, but they are hungry physically also. Sometimes they don’t know the language, they don’t have transportation.”

Fossá said that the migrants he has seen in recent years are more likely to be well educated than immigrants in previous decades, and they felt that they had no choice but to leave their home countries for the good of their families.

“A lot of these people had professional jobs,” Fossá said. “These people are educated. Because of the poverty of their country, they had no other choice. They went to school, they had dreams, but then they found out that their country couldn’t provide for their family. … We all came from somewhere. I would invite Catholics not to forget that. Now these migrants are living the same story.”


  • immigration
  • parishes

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