The scene at St. Bridget’s Church in Postville isn’t so much different
from what might be found at any facility where people in need gather
for help. Children build forts out of rocks from the flower beds in
front, knock them down, laugh and build again. Young adults chat on
cell phones while waiting. Adults, also waiting for their turn with
volunteers, sit in chairs lining a front hallway or on the front porch.
Despite the best efforts of the children, the mood is tense and somber.
In the kitchen, Sister Mary McCauley, pastoral administrator for the
region, stands next to the table and begins emptying a tote bag of
notebooks, papers and the mail she picked up from the post office. Her
eyes play briefly across the small envelope before she flips it and
uses a finger to break the seal. One by one, she opens the few pieces
of handwritten mail. Any checks inside the envelopes are placed in a
stack on the table. In addition to the donations, most envelopes also
contain personal notes. Without fail, she pauses to read each one,
often smiling while doing so.
The nearly four weeks since the May 12 federal immigration raid at Agriprocessors have been difficult for the small Postville parish, which boasts about 100 members.
"We had been hearing rumors that there might be an immigration raid
for a few days," Sister McCauley, who serves parishes in McGregor and
Monona in addition to St. Bridget’s in Postville, said as she recounted
the day of the raid. "About 10 o’clock that morning I got a call and
was told that it was no longer just a rumor and that the helicopters
were here. I came and went to plant, although it was all blocked off. I
remember talking to the chief of police and telling him that when the
families were worried and concerned, he should tell them that they
could come and connect with one another at the church. Well, as it
turns out, they came and connected for six days."
Although Sister McCauley laughed at the end of the statement, the
initial situation, just in terms of physical space, was nearly
overwhelming for the church.
"We have this little office here," she said. "I thought we could
allow people to come, see their friends, communicate with one another
and answer a few questions. We had about 400 people here that first
Many of those who came to the church were Guatemalan women and their
children. The vast majority of those detained on possible immigration
violations were men who served as their family’s backbone. The men and
48 women in federal custody had already been relocated to the National
Cattle Congress in Waterloo, more than an hour away by car.
"At first we just said, ‘Wow! What’s going on here?’ Then we
realized that this was really needed," she said. "The women, in
particular, needed a place where they could let their anxiety level
lower and be with people they knew. Many of the Guatemalan women had
never been alone like that. They came with their little children, and
they worried what they would do if one became sick. Their husbands had
always been the family member that interacted within the community in
those situations. So they had to be with one another, and we knew that
being together would finally empower them to get back to their
"Each day we would kind of say: ‘We’ve been together. We’ve played
together. We’ve prayed together. We’ve been nourished together. You are
getting stronger. ICE is gone. You can do it.’ As we saw them gaining
more and more strength from one another, we would talk to some of the
community leaders and let them know that if they took steps to leave
the church and get back into their own homes, the others would follow
When those taking refuge in the church did return to their own homes,
the church and its congregation knew its role had changed, but was not
"That first week? I refer to it as sandbagging," Sister McCauley
said. "The river was overflowing and we had to make an immediate
response, which was food, shelter and presence. Then the river was
beginning to lower, but things had been destroyed. Lives had been
shattered. We still had a lot of cleanup to do."
"Cleanup" has been an administrative response that includes
financial, medical and legal assistance, as well as continuing to be a
"compassionate presence" within the community. Last week the church
hosted a legal clinic that provided residents access to about 15
immigration attorneys. Those who wished to speak to an attorney were
given opportunity for private discussions that Sister McCauley hopes
provided the people of Postville some direction as they move forward.
The most pressing need, however, remains monetary.
"I’m here today and I was here every afternoon last week …
approving bills for payment," she said. "If someone comes to me with a
rent or a utility bill — first of all, we’ve done intake interviews,
so we know the status of the family and any money that might be coming
in. For most of the families that amount is absolutely zero. There
has to be a decision on how much of a rent bill, for instance, we can
pay. Rent bills range from $400 to $1,000."
Sister McCauley’s eyes turned again to the pile of roughly 10
personal checks on the table. The church is currently helping about 120
people, but volunteers are well aware that there are others within the
community that have not yet come for assistance. As news and pictures
of the immigration raid have faded from the headlines, donations have
"If you take the rent amounts and multiply them by the 120 we are
serving, you can see that what we take in doesn’t go very far," she
said. "The current need is just tremendous, and we know that there will
be future needs for legal assistance and other items like that."
Sister McCauley said she’s been asked many times how the raid and
its aftermath have affected the community and the congregation.
"I’ve thought about it and there are two words that describe it.
This has shattered us, and it has strengthened us," she said. When she
opened her mouth to continue, at first no words came. Her eyes filled
with tears, and she apologized as she reached into her pocket for a
well-worn tissue. Her voice was soft but also resolute when she
"When I say ‘shattered,’ I mean that it shattered the families. It
shattered the children who were running around and asking, ‘Where is my
mother?’ or ‘Where is my father?’ Then there are the poor mothers who
are left to care for their children. What is she going to do? How is
she going to get back to Mexico? She doesn’t have any money. Should she
go back? Should she remain? She is wondering how long her husband is
going to be in jail. So, they are shattered, they are afraid, and they
are filled with anxiety.
"At the same time, they have found strength and love, and they are
giving it to one another. Our St. Bridget’s community and the Postville
community and, really, the entire United States community have given
strength. When we receive a letter, for example, from Los Angeles, that
says that the writer is praying for us, with us, supporting us and
concerned about us, then we know that we can go on another day."
Readers wanting to contact the church should address mail to: St.
Bridget’s Hispanic Ministry, St. Bridget’s Church, P.O. Box 369,
Postville, IA 52162. Any donation checks should be made out to St.
Bridget’s Hispanic Ministry.
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