A history of refugees and immigants

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | August 12, 2016

The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.

Refugees and immigrants are found in this Sunday’s readings, with Isaiah speaking for God about “fugitives to the nations.” And, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself “passed through towns and villages … making his way to Jerusalem.”

Look around you today and see how many people might be recent arrivals to your parish. Have any come from foreign lands? Might they be refugees?

What about the long-term parish members? Where did their ancestors come from? In some of our parishes — like St. Anthony in Neopit and St. Michael in Keshena — there are many Native American people. However, most of our parishes were founded by immigrants. Some fled “the old country” because of war or poverty; others left the U.S. East Coast in search of better housing, farmland or job opportunities.

My own grandmother’s family made their own Brexit about 100 years ago. (They had originally left Ireland.) My grandfather’s family had to flee some place in Eastern Europe that today goes by a different name.

Some parishes were founded by Irish immigrants, including St. Mary in Appleton and St. Patrick in Menasha. Many of their first members were refugees of the Potato Famine of 1845-52.

Polish immigrants formed parishes like Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Pulaski and St. John the Baptist in Menasha — just a few blocks from St. Mary Parish, made up of German families.

Many times, parishes formed quite near each other because of language differences. For example, in earlier days, St. John the Evangelist in Green Bay was the “French Parish,” while nearby St. Willebrord was Dutch. Today, St. Willebrord’s has a thriving Hispanic community.

Much of northern Kewaunee and southern Door counties were populated by Belgians, while further up the Door Peninsula, Scandinavians settled in places like Washington Island and Ephraim.

Many of these early immigrants and refugees left us mementoes in our churches, such as statues of their country’s patron saints — like St. Stanislaus Kostka of Poland, St. Boniface of Germany or St. Bridget of Sweden. St. Joan of Arc, of France, graces many stained glass windows. What saints are in your church? What connections do they have to other countries?

People have come from the east and west, north and south to worship God here. As Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel, we gather together “at the table in the kingdom of God” in our variety of church buildings.

Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of multiple books.

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