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'Welcome the stranger': St. Mary's star guides immigrants, refugees

New London — Residents Julian Rodriguez and his wife, Diana, came to the United States in 2000, seeking to escape the more than 50 years of murder, abduction, sexual violence, drug trafficking and forced relocations that had torn apart their native Colombia.

They came seeking political asylum, and it seemed natural for Rodriguez, as for so many immigrants, to turn to his new American church for help. There, he was connected to the legal services he needed, and even 20 years after arriving in the U.S., his parish priest still regularly checks in with him to discuss the progress of his case.

Rodriguez is a parishioner at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church on Huntington Street. The city's first Roman Catholic church, according to the church's website, it was founded to serve the city's Irish immigrants in 1876 after waves of Irish fled growing poverty and starvation in their homeland during the potato famine.

It now ministers to immigrants from around the globe, including the Caribbean, Central America, South America and the Philippines. In fact, aiding immigrants remains a central focus of St. Mary's community service programs, right alongside serving the city's homeless and low-income families. In 2018, the parish formed its nine-member Welcoming the Immigrant Committee based on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' immigration policy, which states: "We should always welcome the stranger."

"Faith without works is kind of useless, you know, and works without faith are also useless," Father Mark O'Donnell, St. Mary's pastor, said. "So you need your faith, the beliefs of what you hold true in your heart. Our Catholic faith means nothing unless it's practiced."

St. Mary's volunteers join those from St. James Episcopal Church, Church of the City, All Souls Unitarian Universalist congregation and other faith-based groups in New London that also have made serving immigrants and refugees a key part of their community outreach.

While St. Mary's immigrant committee hasn't met during the pandemic, O'Donnell said he continues to work with and support immigrants, offering letters of support and help with securing green cards, finding work or financial assistance.

When Rodriguez received an order from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to leave the country, the Rev. Robert Washabaugh, a former St. Mary priest now assigned to a parish in Norwich, helped him arrange legal services through immigration attorney Glenn Formica of New Haven.

Liìliam Almaraìz-Brennan, director of St. Mary's Welcoming the Immigrant Committee, said the group helps immigrants in many ways. For example, it has supplied advocacy letters to support immigrants who needed to demonstrate that they were hardworking, honest people.

"We have given out support to these immigrants that have been brought to our attention through parishioners," Almaraìz-Brennan said. "This is important because these people are looking for a better life away from violence in their home country."

In the two years the committee has been active, Almaraìz-Brennan says it has helped more than 10 immigrants. Those efforts include helping provide education for citizenship, legal assistance, food, housing, assisting with work applications, transportation, mentoring support and spiritual encouragement and reassurance.

Besides its immigrant committee, St. Mary also strives to serve the community in other ways. For example, in 2019 the parish decided to convert its school building into a 20-unit affordable housing complex. The building that served many generations of children, many of whom were members of the city's immigrant communities, closed in 2012 due to declining enrollment. O'Donnell said St. Mary leased the property to The Connection, a statewide human services and community development agency, for the next 99 years at virtually no cost. While construction was delayed during the pandemic, work is expected to be complete sometime in 2021, O'Donnell said.

Church members decided it was better for the community to repurpose the building "to be used for the poor, for the people who get on the peripheries of society who can't afford housing," O'Donnell said. Some parishioners "wanted to be a part of that groundbreaking, because they saw the hope and the positive dimension of repurposing this building. So instead it has a purpose that's meaningful for the community, and much needed."

Also in keeping with the mission to serve, St. Mary parishioners volunteer at the Covenant Shelter of New London, which provides temporary, emergency shelter to the homeless. O'Donnell serves on its board of directors.

Covenant Shelter Executive Director Phyllis Cappuccio said that St. Mary owns the property and leases it for use as the shelter for "not more than a couple dollars" each year. The shelter was founded in 1983 by St. Mary and St. James Episcopal Church and currently has 35 beds to accommodate homeless individuals or families.

While parishioners assist those facing housing insecurity in the community, serving immigrants and refugees remains one of the parish's prime tasks. Besides having its own immigrant-focused committee, volunteers from other faith and secular communities are working in a variety of ways to benefit immigrants and refugees.

The Immigration and Advocacy Service Center in New London is the only organization to provide immigration-related legal services in southeastern Connecticut, according to Director Joseph Marino, for example. The agency has done outreach to St. Mary's and other churches and organizations, so parishioners can inform immigrants in their church communities of the affordable services offered by IASC. Marino said the organization provides help obtaining citizenship, green cards, family-based immigration applications and more.

Immigration paperwork is virtually impossible to navigate without some professional help, Marino said, and IASC's mission is to provide quality help at the most minimal cost.

Marino said it is churches that often provide sanctuary to immigrants, sheltering them from deportation. Churches also offer assistance with housing, food and school.

"Our job in terms of how we interface with faith-based organizations is simply by education and by letting (the parishioners) know that we're there," he said. "So if they have immigrants who also have legal issues, they can come and see us."

Immigrants and refugees benefit from the collaboration of organizations. The Rev. Carolyn Patierno of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation has collaborated with St. Mary's, as both are members of the Greater New London Clergy Association, an interfaith group dedicated to serving New London.

"At the core of our value system is a commitment to social justice," Patierno said. "In the face of immigration injustice, our religion tells us to act and support those vulnerable."

All Souls bought a house that was then used to sponsor a family of Syrian refugees, who became independent last summer. It is currently sponsoring a Haitian woman seeking asylum.

This initiative is in collaboration with Start Fresh, a nonprofit that has been working with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, in New Haven to co-sponsor refugee families in New London since 2016. The impetus for Start Fresh came from the Greater New London Clergy Association but it is now a secular organization.

Board President Vivian Samos said Start Fresh has about 250 volunteers.

"So many, many people, most people have a story about how their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents came here as immigrants," Samos said. "So many of our refugees are fleeing persecution in the countries they're coming from. So, I feel connected to them and I also feel connected in the sense, and many of our volunteers do, to the unbelievable courage, resources, resilience that these families bring to our region."

Samos said about a fifth of Start Fresh's resettlement volunteers come from faith communities. Volunteers support the family for the initial four months, securing residence, providing food, transport, help with job applications and general support.

At St. Mary, O'Donnell and others recognize the language barrier that can make working with immigrants and refugees a challenge. O'Donnell said he has been learning Spanish the past three years so he can "engage in conversation more and more with the Latino community."

The church also offers services in both English and Spanish.

St. Mary became part of the consolidated faith community St. Brendan the Navigator in 2017. Four parishes — St. Mary and St. Joseph in New London, St. Paul in Waterford and Our Lady of Grace on Fishers Island, N.Y. — share clergy.

Sharing resources also entails the immigration services and outreach programs, O'Donnell said. Not only has the internal community of the church grown, but so has collaboration with other faith communities in New London to address immigration and refugee issues, he said.

"Like (American citizens), the immigrant people are human, too," Rodriguez says. "We are coming here because we want to fix our lives."

About this series

"Spirit of the City" is a project completed by University of Connecticut journalism students studying community news reporting. The class of eight students worked with Professor in Residence Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald, a former Day reporter, as well as journalism department head professor Maureen Croteau and editors at The Day to produce stories about New London's faith communities, the diversity these communities represent and the extensive outreach and social justice work they perform.

Students began working in January 2020. The coronavirus pandemic that shut down houses of worship, along with most businesses and schools in March, severely delayed and impacted the students' ability to conduct face-to-face interviews but they completed these stories under these adverse conditions. The students who contributed to this project are: Kevin Arnold, Margaret Chafouleas, Olivia Hickey, Allison O'Donnell, Daniela Luna, George Penney, Maxine Philavong and Joseph Villanova.

The entirety of the series can be found at bit.ly/nlsotc2020.

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