Former St. Edmund School to house migrant families in Oak Park

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Former St. Edmund School to house migrant families in Oak Park

The former St. Edmund School in Oak Park was set to house migrant families at the end of February. The former school, located at 200 S. Oak Park Ave., is also home to the Catholic parishes of Oak Park's Migrant Ministry. On Feb. 22, 2024, volunteers helped migrants find clothing and toiletries. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Victoria Bran takes down basic information from a migrant at the former St. Edmund School in Oak Park on Feb. 22, 2024. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Karina Hernandez helps a family choose clothing in one of the rooms at the school. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Margaret Nieto from St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy and St. Giles Parish checks on inventory in the coat room at the school. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
After helping them choose coats, Antonio Reyes packs them up for a migrant couple in the coat room. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Debbie Heer visits with Edna Bayon as she sorts through donated travel-sized toiletries. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers talk behind shelves of shoes in one of the rooms. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Welcome flags from different countries greet asylum seekers coming for assistance at St. Edmund School in Oak Park on Feb. 22, 2024. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

More than 100 migrants who had been staying at the Carleton of Oak Park Hotel and West Cook YMCA were expected to move into a temporary transitional family shelter in the former St. Edmund School building at the end of February.

The migrants were to be housed three families to a classroom, with each family having bunk beds and a table and chairs and dividers around their space, according to Jack Crowe, the volunteer who calls himself the “reluctant and unpaid CEO of the Oak Park Family Transitional Shelter.”

The non-profit was created when the Village of Oak Park asked that a shelter be  located in the former school on the St. Edmund campus of St. Edmund and Ascension Parish. The building is also the home of the Catholic Parishes of Oak Park Migrant Ministry, which offers newly arrived migrants an opportunity to choose clothing, toiletries, blankets and outerwear; offers a place for medical services from doctors at Loyola Medicine; and connects migrants to people who can offer legal services and help getting work permits.

Services will be paid for with $1.9 million that was provided to the village of Oak Park from the state of Illinois to help house the migrants, whom the village had been housing at the hotel and the YMCA since the end of October.

The contract for the shelter at the school runs through June; Crowe said the hope is to connect families to permanent housing before then.

“We surveyed the migrants, and their top priorities for what they needed were, number one, a job, then housing — apartments — and legal services,” Crowe said.

Father Carl Morello, pastor of both St. Edmund and Ascension Parish and St. Catherine-St. Lucy and St. Giles Parish, said it made sense to use the empty space in the school, but the parish could not have made the commitment without financial support.

“Everybody agreed that we could provide the space, but we didn’t have the money,” he said.

And everybody wanted to keep the migrants in Oak Park because many of the families have children in school there, he added.

Crowe and Morello said the shelter is one more facet to the response to the migrant crisis that has been mounted by members of the Oak Park parishes, in collaboration with members of neighboring religious institutions and neighbors who profess no faith. It started in May, when parishioners were offering food, clothing and other help to people sleeping outside the Chicago Police Department’s 15th District station, in the Austin neighborhood,   only a few blocks from the St. Catherine-St. Lucy campus, said Celine Woznica, one of the leaders of the migrant ministry.

She and her husband, Don Woznica, had served as Maryknoll lay missioners in Latin America and are fluent in Spanish, so they went to see what they could do to help. They realized that the people sleeping in tents had no place to shower.

The former rectory at St. Catherine-St. Lucy had recently opened as an overnight shelter for the homeless population; Celine Woznica went to Morello to ask if the parish could use the facilities there to offer migrants a safe place to shower once or twice a week.

By December, with the migrants who had been sleeping by the police station moved into the hotel and the Y, the shower program had stopped, but up to 500 migrants were coming twice a week for clothing — especially winter coats — boots, shoes, toiletries and blankets.

There was so much demand, and so many materials, that the ministry moved to the first floor of St. Edmund School in January. The added space makes it easier for volunteers to display items by type and size, so migrants can choose what they want, while other volunteers supervise and play with the children. Another volunteer offers ESL classes, and migrants who have been receiving help for the past months are working on starting a mutual aid group, Woznica said.

“This is really becoming a community center for them,” she said.

It’s also become a place for spirituality and worship, with a Claretian priest who meets individually with migrants and a new weekly Spanish Mass. Some of the migrants have come to the parish to get married, or to have their children baptized, she said.

Morello said he has been impressed by the community response to the migrant crisis.

“It’s the compassion that I see, the care people are experiencing that brings them hope in kind of a desperate situation,” Morello said. “When I hear some of the things that these folks have gone through to get here — the tenacity that they have to do it. Offering compassion — that’s part of the mission, really. “This is really a witness to the church in action. It’s given us an opportunity to step up and show what church is.”


To learn more about the migrant ministries and their needs, visit


  • migrants
  • parishes

Related Articles