Casa Guadalupana: shelter for families far from home

| December 18, 2012 | 0 Comments
From left, Casa Guadalupana residents Elder and Karen hold their newborn twins, Helder, left, and Krystal, who were born on Nov. 8. The couple is from Nicaragua. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

From left, Casa Guadalupana residents Elder and Karen hold their newborn twins, Helder, left, and Krystal, who were born on Nov. 8. The couple is from Nicaragua. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

A young woman is eight months pregnant with nowhere to go.

She is far from home and looking for a safe place to deliver her child. After looking feverishly with her husband, they find a place just in time for her delivery.

They know this is only a temporary spot, and they will need to find a permanent home soon.

Sound familiar?

It’s the story of the Holy Family and birth of the Savior. But in this case, it’s a story taking place in the present, not 2,000 years ago. And, the setting is St. Paul, not Bethlehem.

The mother and father are Latino — Karen and Elder (who asked that their last names not be used) — and they are more than 3,000 miles away from their native Nicaragua.

They have landed, not in a stable, but in a far more comfortable and homey place: Casa Guadalupana in St. Paul. A Catholic Worker house, it recently moved to the former rectory of St. Matthew in St. Paul.

With hundreds of volunteer hands and thousands of donated dollars, women and couples with children who might otherwise be homeless can find shelter, plus relationships that turn into new friendships — and more.

“It has been a great help to us,” said Karen, 33, through an interpreter. “I don’t have any family here. But in this house, I feel like I have a family.”

Helping those in need

Karen came directly to Minnesota from Nicaragua in October 2011, with her husband Elder, 35, coming three years earlier.

The child Karen was carrying when they moved in to Casa in October actually turned out to be twins — a boy, Helder, and a girl, Krystal, born Nov. 8, coincidentally the birthday of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day.

Elder has been working odd jobs to support the family, but it’s not enough.

That’s where Casa comes in. Staffed by volunteers and funded by donations, it reaches out to vulnerable Latinos (women or married couples) with children who need immediate help. It is not designed as permanent housing, yet there is no established time limit for people to stay.

Even the briefest of tours makes it apparent this is unlike most other housing shelters. The 7,500-square-foot dwelling features craftsmanship by many contractors who donated labor, and lots of little touches by volunteers from local parishes who chose to band together to “sponsor” individual rooms.

One example is the second-floor nursery, which sits just down the hall from the bedroom where Karen and Elder sleep.

A small plaque notes that this room was remodeled and furnished by volunteers from Guardian Angels in Oakdale.

But that is only part of the story. Casa founder Kim Anderson, who has served there for eight years and lived in the house up until recently, explained just how deep the ties are between the new room and the volunteers who put the finishing touches on it.

Walking into the small but fresh-smelling nursery, she immediately turned sharply to her right and pointed to a plaque on the wall dedicated to one of the Guardian Angels volunteers, Arthur Hoff. He represents the heart and soul of his parish’s volunteer effort at Casa.

“The night the group from Guardian Angels was gathering to plan how they were going to redo this nursery, Art had a stroke,” Anderson said. “They came anyway, and we prayed for him. Then, he passed not very long after that. But, his wife Lila said that one of the last things he said was that he wanted this project to be completed.”

And, completed it was, but with more-than-ordinary baby furniture. Anderson noted that a rocking chair in the corner was donated by a grandmother who rocked her own children to sleep in it. The same was true of a nearby crib and daybed. And, there were the little plastic eggs placed carefully about the room by a woman who later was diagnosed with cancer. She continues to battle the disease today.

Some of those same volunteers return to help in whatever way they can. But they don’t always get to see the reactions of the women and men who walk into this home from far humbler living conditions — in some cases, the streets of St. Paul.

“Most of the families that come to Casa are hanging on by their fingernails,” Anderson said. Yet, their desperate circumstances seem only to  amplify their reaction to their new surroundings.

“The first mom who ever stayed in this room [nursery], walked into the room for the first time and started crying,” Anderson said. “And, she said, ‘You mean someone who doesn’t even know me made this for me? Why would they do that?’ She just couldn’t believe it, she couldn’t believe that total strangers would love her that much.”

Reliance on volunteers

Love, in fact, is what drives people to invest in Casa. There is no such thing as a paid staff member.

Even Anderson, who logs countless hours at the house, in addition to her regular job, does not collect a dime. Her motivation comes from witnessing the gratitude — and tears — of vulnerable Latinos who come looking for shelter and end up finding the love of faith put into action.

“Those moments are why I do this,” she said, of her encounter with the young mother. “The Casa has a core of people who do all of these things. They do it for the same reason I do.”

Sometimes, the volunteers are touched as deeply as the families themselves. Anderson described several skilled laborers who put in hours renovating the house, then stopped by on a Sunday afternoon on their motorcycles. Their tattoos suggested views that could be hostile toward immigrants.

But their demeanor toward the residents and staff of Casa said otherwise. They were there on their own time not only to admire their work, but to ask if there was anything more that they could do. These workers, and many others, did it all for free, with some donating materials in addition to their time.

That’s precisely how $368,000 worth of renovation is done with only $55,000 worth of donations. Anderson repeatedly called that a miracle, and held it up as a key part of this story. And, this was a necessary miracle, as the house gets no money either from the government or directly from the archdiocese.

Yet, that does not at all mean that the local church is uninvolved. On the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bishop Lee Piché came to celebrate and dedicate the newly renovated house. And, there were parishes like Guardian Angels and others that sponsored rooms and provided other meaningful donations.

Fittingly, the chapel on the main floor was sponsored by the Women’s Society of Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul. A beautiful image of the patronness of the Americas that came from Mexico sits atop a wood altar.

No doubt, this is comforting to the young moms of today who find a welcoming home to raise children on foreign soil.

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