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Casa Juan Diego, New Catholic Worker House, Opens to Serve the Poor

Mark and Louise Zwick and their children, Joachim and Jennifer

Casa Juan Diego is the result of allowing ourselves to dream.

The vision of a Catholic Worker house on Washington Avenue in Houston established to serve the poor and Spanish speaking first came to us in 1979 while working in St. Theresa’s social service office. We had been readers of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker paper for several decades. We had visited Dorothy in New York, made the “famous retreat” in the fifties and were familiar with the book about the movement. In the seventies we became acquainted with the staff and work of four Catholic Worker houses and farm in the San Francisco Bay area.

During the past couple of years while working at St. Theresa’s social service, we have received thousands of requests for help from immigrants and refugees. We became dismayed because we could only help those who lived within parish boundaries. We had to send people back to parishes that not only did not have outreach programs for Latin American Catholics but had no social programs at all for anyone.

We knew too that to refer people to parishes without social services or responsive Societies of St. Vincent de Paul might make sense politically and technically free us from responsibility; but it did not make sense in terms of the Gospel. We knew that to refer in these instances was a mortal sin. Admittedly, sins were committed. On many occasions in our anger, then in our tears, we were reminded of our dream. We would say to each other and to our friends, “If we had any guts we would open a Catholic Worker house on Washington Avenue in Houston to serve the poor and Spanish speaking.”

The Lord, in a rather stark turn of events in October 1980, decided that we had dreamed long enough –and guts were available if we but used them. The message was sudden and crystal clear. We reacted with all the Prudence that former students of Tanquery could muster. (In pre-Vatican II days, Tanquery symbolized the triumph of prudence over commitment). Obviously we must pray, talk and think about this for a long time; which we did, setting January 1, 1981 as the deadline for prudent decision.

In the meantime Dorothy died on the last day of the Church year, November 29. Her prayers were obviously with us as we were becoming more committed and being forced to pass from love in dreams to love in action.

Mark and Louise Zwick

By January 1, all doubts were gone, only fear and anxiety remained. We had a meeting with several couples who were concerned about the poor and who spoke Spanish. Our topic of discussion was Mr. Douglas Meek’s article from Christianity and Crisis, “The Holy Spirit and Human Needs.” The article was serious and difficult but we struggled through, after which the subject of a Catholic Worker house was brought up. The vote was unanimous as was the enthusiasm.

The next day we arranged meetings with the diocesan leadership. They were gracious in their willingness to talk with us and very generous with their time. Their availability reminded us of our experience in El Salvador where there was always easy access to the Bishop.

The diocesan leaders, it turned out, had also read Tanquery and the word Prudence returned, understandably (and so did our anxiety) because Dioceses are run differently from Catholic Worker houses. (Thank God!) The diocesan leadership, however, did not dismiss us. They were encouraging and gave us their blessing. In fact, the first Mass celebrated at Casa Juan Diego was a bilingual Mass by a Bishop.

In the middle of January, we became serious about a location for the Houston Catholic Worker. There was only one place available, 4309 Washington Ave., which was immediately christened Casa Juan Diego. This name, Juan Diego, was chosen because of the importance of his role in the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

We did not have a penny.

The financial response was forthcoming. A Westside pastor gave us our first check. A young mechanic who lived in our neighborhood asked if he could do something. He went into his house and returned with five one hundred dollar bills. We were on our way.

Since this beginning we have received support from other people and other parishes. If all we had to do was pay our rent and refer people to agencies, survival would be easy. However, there are no agencies to which we can refer the undocumented or even some citizens.

Undertaking the operation of a Catholic Worker House requires a constant searching and growing in the ways of the spirit.  Since February all of our volunteers have been meeting on Saturday evenings to discuss the Bible, Dorothy, and issues concerning poverty, justice, and peace. Often speakers come to challenge and motivate our quest for active love. Such weekly meetings are a tradition of the Catholic Worker Movement. Peter Maurin, the visionary behind the movement, called them “meetings for clarification of thought.” These meetings are open to the public. Please let this serve as an invitation to come and grow spiritually with us. For more information call (713) 869-7376.

Houston Catholic Worker,  May 5  1981, Vol. 1, No. 1