Saturday, June 10, 2017

Catholic Worker activist calls on Archdiocese of NY to open unused churches to the undocumented

The late Peter Maurin, considered in many ways to be a co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day, often proposed that every parish should have a house of hospitality. He believed that this simple gesture alone could solve the problem of homelessness. Today, a young Catholic Worker activist, 36 year-old Felix Cepeda, has put a new spin on Maurin's dream, calling on New York Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan to open the doors of New York's Catholic churches, particularly those that have been closed as part of the Archdiocese's effort to consolidate parishes, to the city's undocumented immigrants who are in need of sanctuary.

Cepeda first issued the challenge to Cardinal Dolan in late April in an open letter which was later shared with a Catholic Worker online forum. Wrote Cepeda,

"The Catholic Church in NYC provides amazing services to the poor and we have to celebrate that. At the same time it is not enough, as we see in our streets, the amount of homeless brothers and sisters living without a home is growing every day. As a Catholic Church in NYC we need do more in the fight for justice...We have an amazing opportunity to do just that, in the dozens of closed churches that we have in NYC. At least one of these closed temples and its rectory should be used to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation, create housing for the homeless and also to offer space to the oppressed communities and social justice movements and church reform groups of NYC, in order to support them. At the same time, not one of our open churches is offering sanctuary in NYC to undocumented immigrants facing deportation. I urge you, Cardinal Dolan, to at least allow one parish to start offering sanctuary. There are around 11 individuals at this moment receiving sanctuary in NYC Churches. Sadly none of these are Roman Catholic Churches..."

Then Cepeda, who was born in New York of undocumented parents from the Dominican Republic who have since returned to their homeland, turned to time-honored Catholic Worker tactics. He is maintaining a vigil outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, holding a sign that reads "No Human Being Is Illegal" to drum up support for his cause and briefly attempted a hunger strike, though he had to call that off on the advice of his doctor.

Needless to say, the Archdiocese does not share Cepeda's vision. "Catholic Churches in the Archdiocese of New York that are not currently being used for regular Mass and Sacraments are not appropriate places for sanctuaries. They do not have the facilities necessary for people to reside there," said archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling, adding that the Archdiocese was already doing a lot for immigrants.

Cepeda is no stranger to Catholic social teachings on the poor and the stranger. For a while he pursued a vocation as a Jesuit seminarian but was asked to leave the order due to problems with obedience. The young activist, who was exposed to Dorothy Day's writings in his seminary in the Dominican Republic,  dreams of opening a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in that country. In 2014-15, he had a street mission going in Santo Domingo with a North American Catholic missionary, David Janicki. They gave out food and Janicki, an amateur violinist, also offered his music to Santo Domingo's homeless. But, while Cepeda has a community of people willing to help,  funds and live-in volunteers for a house in the DR have yet to materialize and Janicki has moved back to Dallas where he is working as a research and marketing forecaster, while Cepeda commutes between his parents' home in the DR and the New York Catholic Worker.

Cepeda is still dreaming and working for his dream to come true. Last year he renewed his attempt to solicit volunteers for a prospective house of hospitality in Santo Domingo and has also set up an online fundraising page to raise the $80,000 he needs to buy a house which he plans to name after Dorothy Day. And as for opening New York's Catholic churches, he's still pushing. "We [the Archdiocese] are sitting on this treasure," Cepeda says, "It's a crime."


  1. Wow this is awesome! Thank you for your work Felix! I'm so glad you wrote that letter, this is such important work! I lived and volunteered in a Catholic Worker-style house in El Paso, TX that was a shelter for undocumented migrants and I also volunteered for a year in Santo Domingo! I hope your dream of starting a house there becomes a reality!