Early this past Tuesday, Miranda waited in line, again, one of many she’s stood in with her eight-year-old son for the past six weeks. Exhausted from living at the Austin police station, the Venezuelan asylum-seeker was seeking some relief at St. Catherine-St. Lucy Church in Oak Park.

 It was the church’s “shower day,” a day when folks can get not only showers, but other services as well. On this day, Miranda was seeking benefits for medical services. These “showers days,” she said, help her feel better.

Miranda was one of more than two-dozen South American asylum-seekers from the Austin police station on West Madison Street who benefit from the Catholic church’s shower days.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, folks can come to the rectory at St. Catherine-St. Lucy Church where local, multi-faith volunteers have been providing service to asylum seekers in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood during the past few weeks.

“These folks showed up in our doorstep literally three blocks away at district 15th police station and there was a need,” said The Reverend Carl Morello, pastor of St. Catherine-St. Lucy.

“People in the community stepped up to respond and I’m happy that we were able to have a place to help fulfill this particular need,” he added.

 One of them is Police Station Response Team volunteer Celine Woznica, an Oak Park resident.

Standing at the church’s rectory, she wore a t-shirt that read “nagvocate” while she speaks to asylum-seekers in Spanish and helps volunteers organize clothes, serve food or manage other tasks.

Being a “nagvocate,” she said, is the perfect way describes her efforts to help asylum-seekers — a combination of “nagging” and “advocating.”

She began by coordinating access to showers, recreational and laundry facilities at Build Chicago. But as the Austin-based nonprofit reduced the hours it could welcome asylum-seekers, the Oak Park church became a new safe haven for children, families and individuals fleeing their homes.           

“Everybody finds their little niche,” Woznica said, adding that each day, roughly eight to nine volunteers take on activities like sorting and collecting donations, bringing food, setting up tables, serving breakfast, answering questions or assisting migrants based on their abilities and desires.

A typical day often looks like this one.

“There is always one volunteer who plays with children,” Woznica said, standing next to a table where two middle-aged children played with games and a volunteer played with a toddler. In the same room, three to four volunteers from different Oak Park faith communities serve breakfast amid the sounds of chattering Spanish and English. Families and individuals come in and out of the room sporting clean clothes and, in many cases, wet manes. At the end of the room, two doorways lead to rooms with full bathrooms designated for either men or women. Tables display an array of clothes for men, women and children including underwear, socks, t-shirts, pants and shoes, all donated and categorized by some volunteers. Families have their own space next door to shower and change.

Food is donated by volunteers, who have learned Venezuelans are “healthy eaters.” Ellen Gorney, a volunteer, said fresh fruit, toast, butter, milk and juice are popular, and so are ham, cheese and turkey to make sandwiches.

Migrant children having breakfast at Saint Catherine Saint Lucy Church on Tuesday August 8, 2023 | Todd Bannor

To further assist migrants, volunteers have brought on-site case management services. At the rectory a number of asylum-seekers line up, waiting to see a case manager from Scalabrini Immigrant and Refugee Services, a Melrose Park-based nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees.

Enrique Pilarte, a case manager for Scalabrini, handles the documents and benefits asylum-seekers may be entitled to. In most cases, he said, these folks were processed by Customs and Border Protection at the southern border of the U.S. and have court dates to attend in the next 12 to 18 months. Some are yet to file for asylum before the federal immigration authority, a process he recommends is assisted by a certified immigration attorney, though he recognizes many local attorneys are beyond capacity because of the influx of asylum-seekers in Chicago. Pilarte, a Nicaraguan migrant himself, said most asylum-seekers he serves are concerned about housing and employment. They also need health services.

Enrique Pilarte, a social worker, counsels a migrant woman at Saint Catherine Saint Lucy Church on Tuesday August 8, 2023 | Todd Bannor

“I wish I could hear their stories and learn their hopes,” Morello said. “Who helps them find housing? What about jobs? They want to work.”

 On a single day, he helps about 10 people apply for medical and economic benefits. He also their cases in a shared service provider network known as the Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights.  

“The needs are greater than the resources,” Morello said, adding that while it felt “natural” to repurpose the vacant rectory building to help those in need, this effort is not short of challenges.

As for Miranda, she said she wishes she could leave the police department. But she stays, she said, because of her son.

“He wants to study,” she said in Spanish. She hoped to enroll him in school.

For now, she’ll return to the station and to the church.

“For us it’s a family,” she added. “I appreciate her, Celine.”