Mark Zwick, who 36 years ago turned a tumble-down building on Washington Avenue into a thriving international refuge for immigrants and refugees, died Friday, November 18, 2016, at his home in Houston after battling Parkinson’s Disease. He was 88.
In 1980, Mark and his wife Louise founded Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality where thousands of refugees escaping to Houston during the civil wars in Central America found safe harbor.
In later years, Casa Juan Diego would expand to include ten buildings and become a beacon for immigrants fleeing violence and poverty everywhere. Its name became famous along the foot-beaten corridors that lead to the Texas-Mexico border.
Inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, the methods of the Catholic saints, and Catholic Worker founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Casa Juan Diego offered food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and uncommon kindness to migrants with no place to go and few places to get help.
Over the years, more than 100,000 undocumented men, women, and children spent at least one night at Casa Juan Diego. The center continues to offer hospitality and medical care, and provides free food to around 500 families each week.
After discovering the lack of resources for sick and injured immigrants, Mark also began offering financial support and coordinating personal care services for incapacitated men and women ineligible for social security disability benefits or worker’s comp. Today hospitals, schools, and police departments routinely refer immigrants to Casa Juan Diego for life-saving care.
Mark spent the last 35 years of his life practicing the daily works of mercy at Casa Juan Diego. He welcomed immigrant guests and distributed food and clothing to the poor. He listened to the needs, joys, and tragedies of the sick and injured, the paralyzed, the battered, the pregnant, and the homeless in a strange land and found ways to help each one.
His gentle demeanor, wisdom, sense of humor, and generosity endeared him to the immigrant community. By many he was affectionately known as “Don Marcos.”
Mark avoided bureaucratic systems and business techniques in serving the poor, in whom he recognized Jesus of Nazareth. The ministry remained organic and uncomplicated, a place where the Personalist philosophy emphasizing the unique dignity of each person could be practiced. Priests of the Archdiocese celebrated Mass for the community and immigrant guests each week.
In the midst of ceaseless work, Mark also edited the Houston Catholic Worker, a bi-monthly newspaper exploring themes related to social justice and peace and which sought to respond to the problems of the day with teachings from the Gospel. Mark and his wife also wrote several books, including Mercy Without Borders and The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins.
In addition to Houses of Hospitality, Mark Zwick led social justice activities in Houston on behalf of immigrants and, with his wife, received many awards and recognitions for his service, including the papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice bestowed by St. Pope John Paul II in 1997.
Mark was born in 1927 in Canton, Ohio, one of 11 siblings born to Herman S. and Florence Gulling Zwick. He studied at St. Mary’s College, Kentucky and St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland, OH. He was ordained a Catholic priest on February 28, 1953 and served parishes in Ravenna, Warren, and St. Columba Cathedral in Youngstown, OH. As a priest, he was active in the Christian Family Movement and opened two Catholic bookstores in Ravenna and Warren, OH. During the Civil Rights movement, Mark established Catholic Interracial Councils and performed home visits aimed at promoting peace and racial justice. Mark became known as the priest who worked with the poor.
In 1962, Mark found an equal partner for his work with the marginalized when he met Louise Yarian. She was a kindred intellect and bibliophile who was interested in exploring deep spiritual and theological questions and wanted to draw nearer to God. The friends founded Gilead House, a neighborhood center for the poor in Youngstown. And after a lengthy friendship, during which Louise entered the Catholic Church, they fell in love. Mark received a dispensation to leave the priesthood to marry Louise in the Catholic Church. They had two children, Jennifer and Joachim.
Mark received his master’s degree in social work at the University of Chicago and studied at the Center for Training in Community Psychiatry in Berkeley, CA. He worked as a psychiatric social worker in mental health services in the Bay Area.
In an experience that would change their lives, Mark and his family moved to El Salvador to work among the poor in 1977, just as the unrest that would lead to the civil war was beginning. When they returned to the United States, the couple worked in various parishes in Texas. It was in their work at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Memorial Park that Mark recognized the need to serve the growing refugee population pouring into Houston from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. This led to the founding of Casa Juan Diego, and his life’s work.
Mark is survived by his wife, Louise, daughter, Jennifer and son, Joachim, grandchildren, Naomi and John Flores, great-grandson, Simon, sisters and brothers, Eunice Zwick Ott, H. Joseph Zwick, Barbara Zwick Haren, Rosemary Zwick Phillips, and many nieces and nephews.
A Vigil service will be held on Monday, November 21st, 2016 at 7 p.m. at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, 2140 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77098
Funeral services will be held on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016 at 1 p.m. at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, 2140 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77098
Donations to continue supporting Mark’s work may be made by mail or via the Web to Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker:
Casa Juan Diego
P.O. Box 70113
Houston, Texas 77270