Once upon a time….
St. Leo the Great Parish began with immigrants and refugee parishioners.
St. Leo is here to provide a spiritual home as well as help connect our Burundi and Congolese refugees with resources and support available in the neighborhood. Their faith is their rock and they’ve been through so much. Among their prized possessions when they arrived in our country were tattered prayer books they brought with them from their homes. Upon arrival their first question was “Can you find us a church”.
Catholic Charities, only one of the 6 or 7 refugee immigration agencies in the country, work directly with the United Conference of Catholic Bishops, the State Department & United Nations to bring refugees to our country who are in danger of returning to their homeland in fear of death. The refugees are here legally.
Three and a half years ago, most of our Burundi refugees came directly from refugee camps in Africa with only the clothes on their back and shoes on their feet. They left their homeland in east Africa because of the war between the Hutu and Tutsi in 1972; those ethnic conflicts and disagreements continue today. Many of our refugees have been beaten, the women raped, and the children molested. Some parents have seen their children murdered before their eyes, and children, their parents. They escaped the genocide and killings by fleeing from Burundi to Rwanda then arrived at the refugee camp in Tanzania. Since they’ve been in the camps so long, many of the children were born at the camp.
Imagine coming to America, a country with an overwhelming bounty of food, clothing, household items and ten choices of bran cereal. Being in the camps, there often were no ovens or canned food. Their favorite food? Well-cooked goat and foo-foo which is a grainy bread dipped in stews, etc. Food literally becomes finger food. Hand-held can openers? They were called knives. The acclimation to American food was and continues to be a challenge. Some were allowed to go to school, some were not.
Our Burundi refugees’ native tongue is Kirundi, but understand and speak Swahili. They have access to English classes outside of our St. Leo Monday evening ESL Class. Since some have jobs in maintenance/repair, downtown hotels, restaurants, and factory jobs, and since some need to stay at home with children or due to medical limitations, it prevents them from going to the classes regularly. School-aged children are enrolled in schools that provide English as a Second Language program as well as the Academy of World Languages, St. Boniface, Withrow, and we have a child who has recently been accepted to attend Christo Rey High School.
To find resources in their tongue is most impossible, especially for sacramental preparation and spiritual guidance. To make them feel more at home, we currently print out and copy the Sunday readings from materials (a bible and prayer book in Kirundi) acquired from a Jesuit from Burundi who studies at Georgetown University. The Tri-Health Parish Nurse Program has provided a translator, Sheba Basabose, who is an immeasurable blessing in communicating with our refugees.
We are prayerful in answering God’s call in our efforts to provide our Burundi and Congolese sisters and brothers with spiritual needs along with the weekly Sunday readings, transportation to and from mass & church activities, food from our pantry, Parish Nurse Ministry, Fresh Start urban gardening, clothing, furniture, etc. as needed. With the help of all of St. Leo’s parish family and friends, and with the help of other parishes, we are able to be good stewards of God’s Kingdom.