Mark and Louise Zwick are the founding directors of Houston Catholic Worker in Texas, a local affiliate of the Catholic Worker movement founded in New York City by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933. In 1980 they rented a building where they started Casa Juan Diego mission to provide emergency food, clothing and shelter to the city's predominantly Hispanic immigrants. Casa Juan Diego now serves as the city’s Catholic Worker house and home of the Houston Catholic Worker newspaper. It is one of 227 Catholic Worker communities in the United States.
The Zwicks have written two books about the Catholic Worker movement and Casa Juan Diego: The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins (Paulist Press, 2005) and Mercy Without Borders: The Catholic Worker and Immigration (Paulist Press, 2010).
The Catholic Worker will mark the 82nd anniversary of its founding on May 1 and commemorate the 35th anniversary of Dorothy Day's death on November 29 later this year. This year also marks the 35th anniversary of Houston Catholic Worker and Casa Juan Diego. On April 14, I interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Zwick by email about their life’s work.
The Catholic Worker movement has been around since 1933. How do you explain it to people today?
Mark: The Catholic Worker is a way to live out the Gospel, to serve the poor with the Works of Mercy as opposed to the Works of War and to work toward a revolution of the heart and a more just world.
The Catholic Worker brings together the Gospel, the great teachings of the Fathers of the Church, the saints, French personalist philosophers and what Peter Maurin called a Catholic understanding of history, into a way of life which is a practical alternative to the dominant consumer culture.
Louise: The approach is different from any agency. There is no bureaucracy, there are no salaries, but rather voluntary poverty and giving your work as a gift. When Peter told Dorothy about his ideas for beginning the Catholic Worker movement and a newspaper, she said, that all sounds very good, but where will we get the money? Peter replied, “That’s easy. Use the methods of the saints. Pray, tell people what you are doing, and they will help.”
What’s the goal of your work?
Mark: Apparently the Lord wants us to work out our salvation among immigrants and the poor, the suffering.
Louise: We try to follow the model of Dorothy and Peter.
Outside of the original publication in New York City, very few Catholic Worker houses still publish a broadsheet newspaper. Why do you publish yours?
Louise: Each Catholic Worker house generally has at least a small newsletter, some larger than others.
Mark: We publish to share the thought and work of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, to share the stories of the immigrants, to reflect on current issues in the light of Catholic social teaching and the Scriptures and, hopefully, to help change hearts in preparation for changing unjust social and economic structures.
Who is Dorothy Day to you and why should people care about her today?
Mark: Dorothy, a Catholic convert, is a model, a witness, to living the Gospel. She gave us the example of active love, of living with the poor in Houses of Hospitality and serving Jesus in the poor. She published a prophetic newspaper and through her actions and writings made pacifism, conscientious objection and work for peace a respected stance for American Catholics.
Louise: Dorothy criticized the savage aspects of ruthless economics (from whatever theory), supported small business and cooperatives and small agriculture. She was able to break through the barriers that keep the church’s social teaching from the market place.
Mark: Her radical following of the Gospel, her prophetic voice, flowed from her profound liturgical spirituality. She was a leader in the liturgical renewal from its earliest beginnings in the 1930s. She attended daily Mass, participated in the Divine Office, prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, went to weekly confession.
She showed us the way to unite charity and justice in our world, transforming them in the light of the Incarnation.
Louise: The world needs her now more than ever.
Who is Peter Maurin to you and why do you reprint his “easy essays” in your newspaper?
Louise: Dorothy Day said Peter Maurin was the founder of the movement.
Mark: Peter was a brilliant but shabbily dressed Frenchman and peasant (although he always wore a suit) who read widely and profoundly. He was formed by his Catholic family in the south of France, his novitiate in the Christian Brothers and his participation in a social movement. He proposed the idea of the Catholic Worker program to Dorothy. He told her about personalism and voluntary poverty, about the prophets of Israel, the Fathers of the Church and the saints. Peter outlined his program of action: roundtable discussions, Houses of Hospitality for the practice of the Works of Mercy and agronomic universities.
To top it off, Peter wanted a newspaper that would bring Catholic social teaching “to the man on the street.”
Dorothy implemented his program in a creative, daring and radical way, seeing in it the carrying out of the mandates of Jesus and her own concern for the poor and for a more just world.
Louise: Peter rephrased the ideas he thought were important in prose poems which were easy to read and came to be called Easy Essays. His Easy Essays are filled with wisdom and that is why we reprint them.
How does Houston Catholic Worker differ from other Catholic Worker houses in the United States?
Mark: Casa Juan Diego was founded to give a place to stay to refugees from Central American wars who were escaping death squads and to receive undocumented homeless immigrants.
Louise: Dorothy’s writings about helping Italian immigrants in her neighborhood encouraged us. Incidentally, Peter Maurin himself was undocumented.
Although some have thought that the risk we were taking in receiving refugees and migrants without any documents was radical, if not subversive, our familiarity with the Catholic Worker movement and with Dorothy Day’s way of doing things made it the logical thing to do.
How has your work at Casa Juan Diego evolved or changed since you started it in 1980?
Mark: From its beginnings in the ugliest rented building in Houston, Casa Juan Diego has evolved into nine buildings and countless immigrant guests.
Immigrants and refugees from many countries came to ask for help. First, refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, where we knew that those who were deported back might be killed. Nicaraguans also came. Then economic refugees from Honduras began to arrive, then those from Mexico especially after NAFTA, others from Africa, more recently many from Cuba arriving via Ecuador. Battered undocumented women and pregnant women came to ask for help. We could not refuse.
Louise: Now the big increase is in sick and injured—especially paralyzed—immigrants and refugees who may have worked in the Houston area for years, but who have had work accidents, been shot in the back or the head, have had a stroke, or have been in a car accident. The hospitals of Houston call us to provide for these individuals after they leave the hospital. There is no one else to help them and they can receive no aid, no disability from the government because they are undocumented.
Each morning the entrance of our main building is filled with people in wheelchairs who need help with rent, adult diapers, medical supplies and food for themselves and their families. Other wounded people cannot come in because they are unable to travel. Our Catholic Workers go to them in their homes.
How did the two of you meet and end up getting married?
Louise: We met on Dec. 8, 1962, almost 30 years to the day after the historic meeting between Dorothy and Peter. Mark was a priest, I was seeking faith and interested in Catholicism. Mark introduced me to the Catholic faith and the great writers who prepared the way for the Second Vatican Council. I entered the church in 1963.
Mark: After we had known each other for about five years, we became especially good friends while working with the poor and later fell in love. The Vatican gave me permission to be laicized and gave us permission to marry within the church.
Divorce and remarriage is increasingly common among American Catholics. What’s the secret to the longevity of your own marriage?
Mark: The solution to selfishness is serving each other and the poor. A sense of humor helps.
Louise: We have a commitment to each other, share values and work and have children and grandchildren.
What inspired you as a married couple to get involved in this work?
Mark: We became good friends in the first place working with the poor.
Louise: Mark had visited Dorothy Day, read The Catholic Worker for years and made the Famous Retreat that Dorothy called the Bread of the Strong. He shared this with me. The challenge of trying to live the Gospel in a practical, even radical, way inspired us together.
Mark: We went to El Salvador in 1977 with our children, Jennifer and Joachim, ages 8 and 6, to live with the poor. The civil war started and Oscar Romero became archbishop shortly after we arrived. Our experience there made us determined to help those uprooted by the war when the refugees began pouring into Houston after we came to Texas.
Do you have any regrets about the past?
Mark: We wish we could have been better Christians.
Louise: Mark shared with me that St. Thomas Aquinas said that graces come in chains, so that if one does not respond to one grace, other graces may be lost. We regret that we may have lost opportunities to do good.
Do you have any hopes for the future, particularly during this Easter season?
Mark: We hope to be more committed to the Gospel.
Louise: We are hoping for more Catholic Workers to join us in the work (some Spanish is necessary). We hope and pray for meaningful immigration reform.
How has your Catholic faith influenced your work?
Mark: Our faith has kept us close to the poor.
Louise: It is the foundation of our life and work.
Who are your role models in the Catholic faith, either living or dead?
Mark: Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Oscar Romero, Urban Gerhardt
Louise: Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Oscar Romero, Mark Zwick
How do you pray?
Mark: Every way we can.
Louise: As a community we pray morning prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, we have weekly Mass with our 100 or so guests, and go to Mass in the parish on Sundays. We follow the readings in the Magnificat.
How has living with immigrants affected you?
Mark: Working with immigrants, their rich culture has rubbed off on us, including popular piety.
Sometimes people ask us if it isn’t uncomfortable with all those poor people who have no food or attractive clothing. Material things don’t mean very much to us. We have not accepted acquisitiveness (acquiring many things) as a transcendental value. The worth of the person is primary since being comes before having.
Louise: We learned from the migrants and our study of why they come that the current global economics uproots migrants in a massive way. We have seen the results of the residual and greatly increased violence that followed wars and oppression unfortunately supported by our government in Central America. We learned about the suffering caused by the maze of unhelpful immigration laws.
Mark: So many of the migrants have suffered violence, hunger, thirst and sickness, or have been in detention jails or coyote prisons. And yet they do not give up, they continue on, working hard, trying to help their families. The Cross is always there, but there is hope and there are many small miracles. We have to admire them at the same time as we see the suffering Lord in them.
What does love mean to you?
Louise: There are different kinds of love. Our marriage is based on love and respect. We pray that God’s love can fill our work.
Mark: Love is giving up all and following Jesus. Our expression of love with our guests is to be foot washers rather than hand holders.
Mark and Louise: It is not always easy or glowing, not filled with warm fuzzies. In our work we also have to remember Dostoevsky’s words that Dorothy quoted so often: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Where do you find Jesus Christ in your life?
Mark: At the foot of the Cross, in the poor that we meet every day, in the Mass. We know that in our Works of Mercy we are serving not just José Smith or José Guevara, but the Lord himself in the disguise of the poor.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
Mark and Louise: Matthew 25:31 and the following verses, where Jesus says that we will be judged on how we have responded to him in the poor, in those who suffer—and the Sermon on the Mount, where we are asked to be peacemakers.
These were foundational passages for Dorothy and Peter for the Catholic Worker movement.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?
Mark: We pray that you will canonize Dorothy Day, and eventually, Peter Maurin.
Louise: We want to encourage you in your whole program spelled out in “Evangelii Gaudium.”
What message do you hope people will take away from your life and work?
Mark: We hope people will recognize their freedom as Christians and adopt Catholic Worker personalism, which means that one does not have to wait for the government or the hierarchy to do everything but begin to do it yourself. We hope that they will recognize the dignity of the poor and the immigrant, and understand that the Works of Mercy cannot be illegal.
Louise: We pray that those who come to volunteer at Casa Juan Diego or who read our newspaper may identify with Dorothy and Peter as models and embrace the link between justice and charity.
Mark: We hope that our guests will carry with them a new understanding of Matthew 25 to help their brothers and sisters, which is already important in their culture.
Any final thoughts?
Mark and Louise: We would say with Dorothy Day that we have been disillusioned this long time in the means used by anyone other than the saints to relate to this world that God has made for us. She said that the great mystery of the Incarnation is a joy that makes us want to kiss the earth in worship, because his feet once trod that same earth.
In the middle of our consuming and comfort-oriented society, reflection on the Incarnation reminds us that people are more important than the latest gadget, even if they are born in the place where animals live, even if they have to drink out of the troughs where animals drink on their journey to the United States. They are more important even if they spend their lives doing menial, back-breaking work and traveling to different countries to find that work and the smallest, crowded room in which to live.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.