El Paso del Norte means the path to the north. As Spanish explorers followed the Río Grande River northward in 1581, they would come to see two mountain ranges rising out of the desert with a deep chasm in between. The mountain ranges resembling arms welcoming the first Franciscan friars walking alongside with these early settlers into what has become the location of two border cities, Ciudad Juárez on the south bank of the Rio Grande River and El Paso, Texas on the north bank of the Rio Grande River. Each city on opposite sides of the river with vibrant catholicity, culture, and Franciscans ever-present.
The arrival of the first Spanish expedition at the Pass of the North in 1581, was the beginning of more than 400 years of history in the El Paso and Ciudad Juárez area. By 1659, before there was even a United States, Friar García de San Francisco founded, with the assistance of many people, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Mission, which still stands in downtown Ciudad Juárez as the oldest structure in the area.
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 sent Franciscans, the Spanish explorers, and the Tigua Indians of New Mexico, who were practicing Catholics, southward to take refuge in El Paso, Texas. Since that time, people have discovered their mission and have provided refuge for others. El Paso is not only a path to another place, but the home of many people, faiths, and traditions.
Although news media portrays the area as a highly politized border; it is also a place of encounter, where human suffering is being met with hospitality, hope, and vibrant people of faith. Friar Jarek Wysoczanski, OFM Conv., originally from Poland and with decades of mission experience, arrived in early January 2020 to visit El Paso. Little did any of us know that we were on the brink of a lockdown as the COVID pandemic spread. While in lockdown, friar Jarek felt he was being called to a new mission. His mission was that of creating a family of volunteers from the Franciscan parishes of Our Lady of the Valley Church and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church to welcome the stranger, and to welcome all people in dire need.
This became a reality on April 15, 2022, in partnership with Annunciation House and its director Ruben Garcia. Friar Jarek became a site coordinator for the Holy Family Refugee Center. Abandoned church buildings became a place of welcome where Fr. Jarek discovered that, “El Pasoan are full of love; they are happy, full of empathy and have generous hearts.”
An opening liturgy was held on August 9, 2022, a special date for Fr. Jarek, as it is the death anniversary of the beatified martyred friars Miguel Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzałkowsk, who Fr. Jarek ministered with while all three were missionaries in Peru. Their ministry ended when Miguel and Zbigniew, “ZB” were tragically murdered on August 9, 1991.
“This group of committed volunteers and myself began to physically evolve the vision of a refugee center. All the volunteers worked hard to begin cleaning and decluttering room by room, changing dilapidated buildings into a welcoming and functioning center for refugee families that would soon walk through the doors of the Holy Family Refugee Center.”
Families tend to stay a night or two, receiving three meals a day and a change of clothing for each member of the family, as their efforts are being made to secure transportation for their families who are already living in the United States. Alan Simpson, who has been volunteering since July 2022, states, “People want to work for and be around Fr. Jarek and help him with his mission. What began as a few volunteers staffing the Holy Family Refugee Center three days per week from Monday through Wednesday has now grown to a large group of volunteers staffing the center 7 days a week, 365 days per year.”
Volunteers are working alongside each other to create a loving and welcoming center for all guests. “Guests, who after many months of dangerous travels, finally find themselves in a safe, warm, and loving environment,” says Sue Kurita, who is a volunteer at the center and serves others because her family remembers well when the El Paso Bishop courageously vouched for her Japanese grandparents and opposed their imprisonment in internment camps. “My life would be very different if these ministers of God had not stepped up for my family. I serve so 50 years from now, some person will look back and say, ‘My family is thriving today because the Franciscans and the volunteers saw Jesus in me.’”
The Family Refugee Center north of the Río Grande is made up of two building, which have been named Casa ZB and Casa Miguel. Volunteers of all faiths and traditions, led by Fr. Jarek, have become an embrace of hope for those who continue to approach the same two mountain ranges rising out of the desert, like arms welcoming all newcomers.
In the Gospel, the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus, fled into the desert and sought refuge and shelter. In El Paso, Texas, the Holy Family Refugee Center gives shelter to refugee families.