Migrant families expected to move into former school in May

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The former St. Bartholomew School, 4910 W. Addison St., will be a temporary shelter for migrant families. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The first of about 300 migrants are expected to move into the former St. Bartholomew school building in early May, according to Eric Wollan, chief capital assets officer of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The family shelter, to be operated by the Zakat Foundation, should be a model of how such shelters can work, Wollan said in an April 12 interview.

At that time, Cook County was in the process of making improvements to the building, including adding more showers and laundry facilities, and the Zakat Foundation, an international humanitarian organization with experience in providing shelter and other resources for refugees and migrants, was  preparing to open the shelter.

The archdiocese is leasing the building, which is on the St. Bartholomew campus of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, to the city of Chicago, which is, in turn, leasing it to the Zakat Foundation, who will be in charge of operations at the shelter at no cost to the city.

Parishioners and other neighbors have, for the most part, been supportive of the shelter, and many have expressed interest in volunteering, Wollan said.

“There appears to be an abundance of interest in terms of volunteers from the parish committee and the alderman’s office,” Wollan continued. “We want to be sure that we capture all of that. We don’t want to lose that momentum.”

Chicago Public Schools has identified a local school that offers bilingual education that can accommodate children who move to the shelter as well.

Father Michael O’Connell, pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary, said his parishioners have been mostly positive in their reactions to the shelter.

“We have got greater support than what I anticipated we would be having,” he said. “There are certainly people who are not happy about the shelter in the neighborhood. When we had our meeting in December about having the shelter in the community, there were far more people in favor of it than who were opposed to it.”

Parishioners know the shelter will be for families, and they want to help families, he said.

Last summer, the parish welcomed migrant families who were staying at Wright College to its regular Sunday evening Masses at its other site, St. Pascal Church. While those people are now living in other parts of the city, a group of them still return to St. Pascal for Mass every Sunday, and an even larger group came for Mass on Easter.

O’Connell said he hopes the migrants who come to St. Bartholomew, in the Portage Park neighborhood,  will also connect with the parish community.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office announced April 5 that the plan for the shelter at St. Bartholomew was moving forward after months of talks.

“This initiative represents a remarkable example of what can be achieved when the public, private, and non-profit sectors collaborate towards a common goal,” said Mayor Johnson said in a press release. “My administration’s Office of Immigrant, Migrant, and Refugee Rights brought together an intergovernmental and an interfaith coalition to the table to work out this agreement. I’m proud to work in partnerships with the Archdiocese, Cook County, and the Zakat Foundation as we work to support those in need.”

Wollan agreed that it was heartening to see the different agencies come together.

“It’s a great example of public-private partnership,” he said. “It was complicated for sure, with different entities involved to create this unique operating structure for a shelter. I think everyone’s anxious to get it done and anxious to see it get started.”

“The family shelter at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church is a testament to the resilience and empathy of our community,” said 30th Ward Alderwoman Ruth Cruz. “I look forward to assisting the Zakat Foundation, Cook County, and the Archdiocese in providing these vulnerable families with a safe place and the necessary resources to create a new life for themselves.”

“I’m grateful for the collaborative effort with the City of Chicago and the Archdiocese in our pursuit of innovative approaches to the new arrivals response,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “Cook County is proud to contribute to this initiative, leveraging the skilled craftsmanship of our in-house trades to prepare St. Bartholomew’s for welcoming new families into our community.”

Wollan said there is no set end-date for the shelter at St. Bartholomew, although the archdiocese plans to evaluate the program in six months. The archdiocese anticipates an ongoing need for migrant shelters, he said.

“I think it would be naive to think that is going to slow down significantly,” he said.


  • immigrants
  • parishes

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