Syrian refugee Riad, 2, holds onto the leg of his mother, Nour, as she talks to media in Rome April 18, 2016. The boy, his mother and his father, Hasan, were among 12 Syrian refugees that Pope Francis brought to Rome from a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. Last October, St. Patrick Parish, Hudson was asked by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to take the lead in resettling four Syrian refugee families and one individual. The resettlement is now being handled by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Despite months of soul-searching, St. Patrick Parish, Hudson, won’t be deciding whether to sponsor the resettlement of a group of Syrian refugees.

That’s because another organization, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, has taken over the case from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the parish is no longer being asked to shoulder the responsibility.

In October, the USCCB contacted Fr. John Gerritts to inquire whether St. Patrick would oversee the resettlement of 21 refugees – four families and one adult female.
If the parish accepted, parishioners would be charged with ensuring the Syrians had access to local services, and their basic needs – education, food, housing, medical care, clothing, language and employment assistance and more – were being met.
As the parish explored whether they could feasibly carry out this mission, and whether Hudson had the necessary services to support the refugees, the pragmatic discussion developed into a larger moral dilemma encompassing the entire Hudson community.

Although the families were not found to be a security risk and were cleared for travel to the U.S., the parish would not learn any more about them – their religion, for example – unless they agreed to the sponsorship, and many people, both inside and outside the parish, expressed fear for their families and their community.

Fr. Gerritts was divided, as he wrote to Pope Francis in a letter yet unreturned. He knew Christ’s teachings – and the pope’s – required him to embrace the victims of war, but he feared saying yes “could bring irreparable harm to our parish and to the faith of many.”

But, in late December, the situation changed. The government reclassified the case as urgent, and the parish was asked to alter its timetable. When Fr. Gerritts requested the USCCB honor the parish’s timetable, which would have given the parish several more months to study the situation, the State Department transferred the case.

The number of refugees had also grown to 26, some of whom needed specialized housing and ongoing medical care. Although the refugees had a family member in Hudson, it was determined their medical needs would require a location nearer Madison or Milwaukee.

Moving on

With the refugee project over, Fr. Gerritts said he feels just a little bit lost, as though the parish’s months of work didn’t matter.

“Now we need to figure out what we do next,” he added. “What do we do with all this information that we’ve learned, and what will God be calling us to do down the road?”

The parish’s town hall listening session on the refugee question, which had been scheduled for Jan. 3, changed into a discussion of what the parish has learned during its soul-searching process.

“We all believe that … if we love Jesus, we say yes to Jesus,” Fr. Gerritts said. Parishioners said he’d made up his mind, but the pastor never did learn whether he had the courage to say yes.

What he does know is his parish rose to the challenge, and he truly believes they would have succeeded in the mission of caring for the refugees.

“I’ve learned that there are incredibly generous people, people willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard,” he said.

“I’ve also discovered that not everyone feels welcome in our parish,” he added.

St. Patrick numbers 1,700 families, but the parish is not very racially diverse.

People of different ethnic backgrounds “can feel isolated and alone,” Fr. Gerritts has learned. “That’s something we need to look at down the road.”

After months of education on the Syrian refugee crisis, St. Patrick parishioners now know there are 63 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide. Although they won’t be resettled in the St. Croix Valley, Fr. Gerritts believes the parish has an obligation to help.

Their first move was to post a link on the parish’s website,, for people who want to contribute financially to the resettlement of Syrian refugees. Beyond that, they will continue to study how they can utilize the energy and education generated in the parish over the past few months.
Pastors of other faith communities in Hudson have been incredibly supportive, Fr. Gerritts added. He also hopes this will result in the building of long-term relationships.

As they reflect on the process, as discussed in the listening session, Fr. Gerritts feels the parish has much of which to be proud – they’ve been transparent and cordial with the community. They’ve fasted, prayed and communicated respectfully. They’ve modeled good behavior.

“It’s been a very come-to-Jesus moment for many of us,” said Fr. Gerritts.

‘On creating a culture of encounter’

Fr. John Gerritts
Special to the Catholic Herald

Editor’s note: This is Fr. Gerritts’ commentary on the theme for National Migration Week 2017, which was celebrated by the U.S. Catholic Church Jan. 8-14.

I wish I knew more about how to create a culture of encounter. I believe the thing is that we can send money to charities – we all do it a lot. At some point we need to actually speak to the people who the charities serve, put a face with the issues that people struggle with.

Much of the time the reality is that we can’t take problems away from people. We can put a Band-Aid on their problem – but the issues they face still exist. What is the most important gift I can give is my presence. I often say I have preached hundreds of homilies at funerals. I am sure no one remembers anything of what I have ever said. They do remember I was there, though.

I am preparing to travel to our sister parish in Guatemala this week. I could send the money that it is costing me to fly down there. The money would be spent. Food bought or maybe medicine. A month from now they will still be hungry and sick. Will they know that for a brief moment though I was with them? I saw them, spoke with them, and held their hand. We need experiences like that – where we are present for people.