Parish offers hope, help to struggling couples

| Sharon WIlson | July 17, 2013 | 0 Comments
Volunteer Kristina Gavino works to familiarize herself with the software on the ultrasound machine at St. Stephen parish’s Sagrada Familia family services center in Minneapolis. Gavino,a nursing student, will be assisting medical personnel who use the machine. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

Volunteer Kristina Gavino works to familiarize herself with the software on the ultrasound machine at St. Stephen parish’s Sagrada Familia family services center in Minneapolis. Gavino,a nursing student, will be assisting medical personnel who use the machine. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

A couple walks into a Catholic church. They have been living together for three years and came to have their child baptized. After learning about their living situation, the priest encourages them to enter into a sacramental marriage. All is well for a while, but the arrival of two more children and the stress of coming from different cultures takes its hold. Soon he leaves her and she is left alone to raise the children with little money. Once again she turns to the church.

The story is true and comes via St. Stephen church in South Minneapolis. It is, however, a story that is unfortunately repeated in our parishes on almost a daily basis.

In many cases the woman is referred to public housing and public assistance. When referred to social service agencies, her immediate needs may be provided for but the outside services don’t treat the whole person and the family. St. Stephen’s saw that what this woman needed was prayers, someone to listen to her, a community to help her and to recognize her own dignity in God’s eyes.

Finding hope

St. Stephen’s is made up of 90 percent Latinos. First and second generation immigrants bring their own unique cultures, and their frequent clash with American culture often leaves families in shambles.

“Economic and social pressures on immigrants put an enormous strain on a marriage,” St. Stephen’s website states. “There is no faith-based Spanish speaking marriage counseling in the archdiocese. Latino couples suffer from: Lack of communication, sexual misinformation, and violence suffered when they were children, financial strains, male dominance, lack of knowledge of the faith, loneliness, isolation, manipulation, abortions, addictions and lack of time together. But there is hope.”

Father Joseph Williams, pastor of St. Stephen’s, recognized this problem and knew that what was needed was a comprehensive center. Instead of a band-aid approach, the whole person, whole families and whole community needed healing, guidance and hope. Just referring someone to government agencies doesn’t work.

“The secular and government agencies lacked the element of faith and may even encourage contraception, abortion, cohabitation and divorce,” said Viviana Sotro, director of St. Stephen’s Sagrada Familia family services center.

Wing and a prayer

With a little more than an idea, a plan was formed. The building that had once been the rectory became vacant. Deacon Luis Rubi, assigned to St. Stephen’s, orchestrated a plan for providing a center for family services.

Through Deacon Rubi’s connections at Holy Family Church in St. Louis Park, a partnership of committees was formed. Latino and Anglo experts planned, side by side, the remodeling of the old rectory and the services it would offer.

A chance meeting between Father Williams and Sotro a year ago solidified a director for the center. She came with experience in Argentina in marriage work and natural family planning, and she and her husband continued their volunteer work when they moved to Minneapolis.

There are two main areas of services the center provides: pregnancy services and family services.

Pregnancy services include pregnancy and limited ultrasound testing, STD testing and medical referrals. There is counseling for pregnant women, husbands, boyfriends, families and friends to accept the pregnancy and the new life that has entered the world as well as social services referrals where necessary and connections with resources that are available in the community. “All of our programs are offered in a culturally specific way,” Sotro said.

Family services includes couple-to-couple mentoring and counseling. The Matrimonios Compañeros Program uses trained volunteer couples to offer support to others who are struggling in their marriages. Seventy-five couples have participated in this program already.

Another program is called Te Escucho and literally means “I Listen to You.” This service brings caring volunteers who spend time with people experiencing transition in their lives. The purpose of the outreach is to listen, not to solve problems but to be a sympathetic ear.

“Sometimes, people are lonely and confused when experiencing a new culture,” said Sotro. More than 200 have participated in the culturally sensitive parenting programs. Natural family planning classes and theology of the body education are available for families, young adults and ­others.

A group effort

As Catholics, we are called to do more than anonymously give to the organizations that care for those in need; we are called to step up and take care of our communities.

With three abortion centers in the area, the center has a goal to assist pregnant women in accepting new life. A group of Knights of Columbus took the initiative to assist this effort by purchasing an ultrasound machine for the center.

As part of a nationwide KC project to provide ultrasounds to pregnancy resource centers, Pat Rickert — respect for life chair for the Bloomington Knights of Columbus — helped with this initiative.

“This was an effort of 10 councils in our area,” Rickert said. “To come together for this common cause was a real accomplishment.”

Planning started in May 2012. The Knights took the lead and a fundraising fiesta dinner at St. Stephen’s was held last October. Mexican food, Mass, speakers and even a Mariachi band brought two cultures together. “Enough money was raised to secure the ultrasound and additional funding is being used to secure medical staff,” Rickert said. “We are continuing our efforts to assist with this outreach program.”

“We have received help from many places and we are working together,” Sotro added. “All of the work at the center has been completed by St. Stephen’s parishioners.” Sotro said.

Professionals and laborers transformed the old rectory into beautiful office space for services. “Donations are always needed, but the greatest need right now is for bilingual medical staff,” she added noting that people can volunteer weekly, monthly or periodically.

Because of the care and inspiration of the Sagrada Familia, the true story of the couple at the beginning of this column has a happy ending.

The wife became involved with the church, joined a prayer group and participated in one of the mission retreats. Her husband showed up at the same retreat unexpectedly.

“I felt God’s call to come back to my family,” he told Sotro. The wife shared that she had been praying for her husband since he left. He now knows why he felt the call to return. On the night of reconciliation both publically shared their story and he asked for forgiveness, and she forgave.

A family once broken is now reunited. Social service agencies can’t provide this kind of help. It is the work of the Church. It is our work.

An open house and blessing of the center is set for Sept. 8. All are welcome; it is part of St. Stephen’s parish festival.

The Sagrada Familia Apostolate is located on 2211 Clinton Ave. S., Minneapolis MN 55404. Viviana can be reached at (612) 392-2421. Find out more about the center and how you can get involved or donate at

 Wilson is respect life coordinator for the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life.

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