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Mark Zwick: “I Live at Casa Juan Diego”

by Zeidy Harris

Stephen has been an essential part of Casa Juan Diego since the very beginning, maintaining our large mailing list, printing and sorting labels and working with the guests of our men’s house in preparing each mailing of the paper, as well as working with the accounting.

One of the last times I spoke with Mark Zwick was about three months ago. I had picked up the Post Office box mail and brought it to the Zwick’s house at Casa Juan Diego (CJD). Louise answered the door and let me enter into the living room. Mark was sitting on the sofa. I asked Louise for an accounting document and she exited to her office to retrieve it.

I asked Mark what his thoughts were of slowing down his activity with Casa Juan Diego. He seemed surprised. I said that I was lamenting that he wasn’t 25 years younger and at his prime as the moving force of CJD. He looked at me and said, “I live at Casa Juan Diego.”

That statement hit me full on. “Yes, yes you do Mark.” I thought for all these 36 years you have carried the full weight of responsibility for all the blood, sweat and tears that make up Casa Juan Diego. You have carried all these broken bodies in anguish, covered with sores and their broken bones, and yes, the tears of joy when the refugee heard the answer of “yes, bienvenidos, you may stay with us.”

Around the time of my birth, my mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. The joints of her hands and feet became terrible deformed over the years and she was bedridden for the last 10 years of her life. I saw that people needed help, ordinary everyday help, in the routine functions of their lives.

I remember as a child, I prayed that someday I would work along side of a saint. If I could witness what a saint does and how they behave then maybe I could become a saint. I needed a saint to mentor me.

In 1977, Mark, Louise and their two young children moved into the rent house next door to my family home. I was 24 years old and owned a Ford van. Mark and Louise were employed as the social service directors for my parish church, St. Theresa. On several occasions Mark asked me to help him pick up large donated items of furniture using my van. As we drove, I got to know Mark and he introduced me to the writings of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. What Dorothy and the Catholic Worker did was exactly what my mother needed, ordinary everyday help for the routine functions of our lives. Dorothy expanded that to the physical and spiritual Works of Mercy as in Matthew 25, the Sermon on the Mount. Dorothy exemplified what a saint looked like in today’s world. But Dorothy and her work were just an idea in my mind.

In 1980, many people from Central America were fleeing the violence and civil wars of that area. Many of the refugees came to Houston. Many knocked on the door of my local parish social service office seeking assistance. That knock was answered by Mark Zwick. The parish priest told Mark there wasn’t a lot of money for refugees and to limit help to parish members. Mark’s answer was that “if Louise and I have any guts, we will open a Catholic Worker on Washington Avenue” to serve the undocumented population arriving at our doorstep. In May 1981, Casa Juan Diego was opened in a rented building on Washington Avenue.

After a fire in that rented building, Casa Juan Diego moved to its present location. After another fire, CJD rose from the ashes to its present steel and concrete construction. Tested in fire, Mark and Louise carried on the vision and work of Dorothy Day and Matthew 25.

Dorothy Day died the year that Casa Juan Diego was formed. I was always disappointed that I had been unable to meet her. After so many years of working with Mark, I am not disappointed anymore. I am sure that Mark’s spirit is a match with Dorothy’s spirit. To have witnessed one was to be in the presence of the other.

I have worked many years along side with the Zwicks, doing the routine duties it takes to operate a house of hospitality. I have witnessed what it is to be a saint in today’s world. My childhood prayer is answered.

“I live at Casa Juan Diego.” I have life at Casa Juan Diego. I am alive at Casa Juan Diego. My life is Casa Juan Diego. Search and there you will find me, giving food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, care for the sick and injured. I live in the spirit of Matthew 25. I live in the hearts and hands of my fellow Catholic Workers. I am a Holy Thursday foot washer. I am in humble service to the least of my brothers and sisters. I am a follower of Dorothy and Peter. I am a disciple of the Nazarene, the risen Son of the Father.

And yes, “I live at Casa Juan Diego.”

Houston Catholic Worker, January-March 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1.