Finndia Cherelus and her cousin Dieunite Henrichel lingered over a stove, occasionally stirring several pots of food they were preparing for lunch.
It’s a new routine for the cousins, who were making some of their favorite recipes from their native Haiti, including chicken, beet salad, and black beans and rice with shrimp. They came to live with Deacon Dana Engelhardt and his wife, Chris, in December.
The two are seeking asylum in the United States. When they arrived in St. Louis, they asked someone at the Downtown bus station where they could find help for immigrants. An internet search led them to iHelp, an English language education program for immigrants, located in the former St. John the Baptist High School building. On the day after Christmas, the cousins showed up in the church’s parking lot, luggage in tow.
As their luck had it, Cherelus and Henrichel were led to the right place. But Chris Engelhardt sees it differently. “When God gives you a gift, He sends His people,” she said. “I thought, we should take care of them.”
The Engelhardts are helping the cousins navigate some of their basic needs, along with legal help as they sort out their asylum cases. Deacon Engelhardt said their experience is a good start for helping immigrants and refugees who continue to arrive in St. Louis.
He cited recent news coverage of migrants coming to other states, and said, “I really think this influx is going nationwide, so to be ahead of that is going to be worthwhile.”
St. John the Baptist recently joined five other south St. Louis parishes — St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Cronan, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Pius V — to form a new Immigrant and Refugee Ministry. The collaboration builds upon a ministry for immigrants and refugees based at St. Pius V for more than 30 years.
The ministry’s mission is to welcome, assist and advocate on behalf of immigrants and refugees and to create bridges among members of participating churches, volunteers and the immigrants and refugees they serve. With the financial support of the six parishes, the ministry plans to hire a coordinator.
The ministry seeks to uphold the God-given worth and dignity of each person with a relational and welcoming approach, said Sister Gen Cassani, SSND, a St. Pius parish council member who was part of the organizing committee that developed the collaborative ministry.
“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but look at the things falling through the cracks for people who came here from another country,” she said.
In addition to direct work with immigrants and refugees, the ministry will do educational work in parishes, hopefully leading to more opportunities with immigrants and refugees, said Ruth Ehreshman, a longtime St. Pius parishioner who also was involved in planning for the collaborative ministry.
“The common thread that brings these churches together, is we see our churches situated in a part of the city and see our mission to create the kingdom here, to care for the people around us and meet the needs of our neighbors,” she said. Through building relationships with immigrants and refugees, “we’re committed to linking people with resources in a meaningful, concrete way and walking with them.”
St. Pius began a ministry for immigrants and refugees in the early 1990s under the leadership of Sister Paulette Weindel, CPPS, who served in that capacity until her retirement in 2014. Sister Leslie Dao oversaw the ministry in recent years until she left her religious community to join the Sisters of Providence in 2021.
Father Mitch Doyen, pastor of St. John the Baptist, said that while numerous organizations and agencies serve the immigrant and refugee populations in St. Louis, lack of coordination of services is among the biggest challenges.
“A lot of folks are frustrated because they’ll get multiple phone numbers, and they end up hearing four or five different things to do — and all they want is to begin their new life here,” he said. “We want to understand the complexity of the environment and make sure the people who come to us get helpful direction that is consistent.”
In light of All Things New, the archdiocese’s strategic pastoral planning effort, the priest said the collaborative ministry is an opportunity for the six parishes to grow together in a way that allows them to collectively and effectively minister to immigrants and refugees living within their boundaries.
“Parishes are defined by boundaries,” he said, meaning that they are entrusted with serving those within their boundaries, regardless of faith background. “It is our intention that within those boundaries, they have resources and the wherewithal to encounter Christ — which first means they have food, shelter and education.”
Sister Gen described the work as an act of evangelization. That means not only that she is evangelizing others; it’s also how she is evangelized by the immigrants and refugees she encounters.
“I am evangelized by the people who come into my life,” she said. “If my eyes are open, my ears are open and my heart is open — I think that’s where it starts. Evangelization is that kind of back and forth.”
>> Ministry coordinator sought
A collaboration of St. Pius V, St. John the Baptist, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Cronan, St. Margaret of Scotland and St. Vincent de Paul parishes is seeking a coordinator for its Immigrant and Refugee Ministry. Based at St. Pius V, this is a full-time position. To read the full job description, see stlreview.com/40X9FeA