In the summer of 2022, Holy Family Catholic Community opened the doors of its Holy Family Outreach Center to two families of refugees fleeing their homelands in pursuit of a better, safer life. Since then, 10 families have found hope and welcoming hearts under the center’s roof, and within the community, a chance to live the lives for which they have so strived and to give back to those who helped them along the way.
Holy Family’s work with refugees began in early June 2022 when Director of Human Concerns Erin Cobb received a call from the St. Vincent de Paul of Fond du Lac County, asking for assistance to serve a growing need.
During the spring, Fond du Lac had begun to receive an influx of immigrants, and in turn, St. Vincent de Paul fielded an increased number of requests for food and shelter, St. Vincent de Paul of Fond du Lac County Conference President and Holy Family parishioner Tim Lanari said.
It all came to a head when two Colombian families — three adults and three children — arrived at the doors of St. Vincent de Paul. They had come to Fond du Lac by chance. Facing deadly and dangerous persecution, the families traveled more than 3,000 miles from Bogota to the United States’ border, where they sought asylum. As refugees, they have a right to international protection, and to legally seek safety and citizenship in the United States.
After having all their possessions taken from them at the border, including a bottle for their baby and diapers, the families entered Arizona. From there, officials sent them to Chicago, where they were given bus tickets to Fond du Lac.
Shelter in Fond du Lac was — and remains — limited. While the St. Katharine Drexel Shelter had recently opened, due to the prevalence of homelessness in the community, it had already reached capacity with more families on the waiting list.
Wanting to assist, Cobb and Holy Family Catholic Community Pastor Fr. Ryan Pruess met with members of St. Vincent de Paul, including the Lanaris. During the discussions, a solution became evident. Just a month prior, the Holy Family Priest Team had moved out of their Sacred Heart and St. Peter rectories to live under one roof in their new rectory near Holy Family Church. With the old rectories vacant, the parish offered them as respite for the refugees.
Initially, the two families stayed at the rectory in St. Peter as Holy Family and Solutions Center collaborated to fund renovations at the St. Mary Rectory — located inside the Holy Family Outreach Center — to accommodate the immigrants. Spanish-speaking Holy Family staff, parishioners and clergy, as well as St. Vincent de Paul volunteers, acted as translators for the families to communicate on everything from food to immigration law. One such person was Holy Family Catholic Community parishioner Barb Piatt, who learned about the refugee families and the need for translators through a friend who was already working with them.
Piatt sought to help the families acclimate to Fond du Lac and the United States through experience. She took them around the city, introducing them to places they needed to know and establishments and events important to the culture: Gilles Frozen Custard, the Buttermilk’s Music Under the Stars, and the Fond du Lac County Pool. She helped them find clothing, food and resources, and at the St. Peter Rectory and later the Outreach Center, helped them to learn the language through personal instruction, as well as by labeling household items in English.
“You’re seeing things anew again,” she said. “Like when you have kids, you see the world through different eyes. You’re seeing the world through people who have lost everything.”
Of utmost importance to the families was to immediately begin working, taking any job they could to do so. One of the family members found work with a local business, and after seeing his work ethic, the owner and his family soon employed the other adults. To help them get to work, another community member provided transportation.
“The families we are helping are really just looking to get out of terrible situations and want to work hard to give their families a better life. They are very driven, thankful and hard working,” Cobb said.
This support from the community has been instrumental in helping the families at the Outreach Center to get on their feet in this new culture. Through the center, Holy Family has connected the immigrants with various services, including housing, food and immigration law assistance with the St. Katharine Drexel Shelter, and English classes at Moraine Park Technical College and Fond du Lac Literacy Services, as well as through private English tutors, like Piatt.
Help came from all sides of Fond du Lac, including Care Inc., Fondy Food Pantry, the Fond du Lac School District, Holyland Food Pantry, Solutions Center, SSM Health, and Dr. Timothy Twohig of Twohig Family Dentistry. Within the Holy Family community, parishioners also stepped forward to assist, contributing food, clothing, money and time. Members of the Holy Family Priest Team — Fr. Pedro Ruiz, Fr. Edward Sanchez and Fr. Matthew Kirk — helped to attend to the individuals’ spiritual needs as well as to grow in their faith. The parish’s Hispanic community, too, welcomed them, and invited them to Mass, which many attend.
As the families became more settled in their new lives and navigated the difficult United States’ immigration system, the Outreach Center began to welcome new residents, including additional members of the first family.
“They have a very strong sense of family and that they were able to stay together as a family, even though they came at different times, that was crucial to them. They don’t take for granted that they get to be together,” Piatt said.
A common trait among the families at the Outreach Center is their desire to never appear like they are taking advantage of any of the assistance they received, he said. As soon as they were able, the first families began to look for a home to call their own, and with the suggestion of Holy Family staff, considered mobile homes in the area. In February, out of the blue, a couple in the Fond du Lac community who were in the process of moving themselves heard the family was looking for a home, and stepped forward, offering to sell the family theirs at a fair price.
“It’s one of the best things I have ever been part of,” Cobb said. “A year in, and it’s impossible to not be moved by all they already have achieved, and how they want to help their community members do the same. While they feel blessed to be here, they are a blessing to our community as well.”