Vases of fresh flowers sit on tables inside the dining room at Casa Juan Diego. Heavy paper sacks of masa—enough to make a ton of tamales—rest beside a door leading into a sunny courtyard. Under an awning, washing machines rumble away, while clean laundry flaps dry on a cluster of clotheslines. Slides and swings in bright primary colors sit atop a recently mulched playground. An organic garden soaks up the afternoon sun.
Earlier in the day, Casa Juan Diego’s food pantry bustled with hundreds of people picking up rice, beans and vegetables. Now, a lull has descended, as the mothers who live here put their toddlers down for nap time and volunteers sort through the latest donations of clothes, canned goods and school supplies. All of this activity takes place just off Washington Avenue and Shepherd Drive, inside a large complex nestled between the leafy Rice Military and Sixth Ward areas, where homes routinely sell for upward of $1 million.
It’s a serene setting worlds away from the strife Casa’s residents—a few dozen at any given time—left behind in countries including Cuba, the Congo and El Salvador. For Louise Zwick, who has taken a voluntary pledge of poverty and committed to living with the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, it’s simply home.
When we visit, Louise, her face soft and kind, her neck wrapped loosely in a black scarf, offers a cup of coffee as we sit inside Casa’s small library. It’s filled floor-to-ceiling with secondhand books for all ages, across many subjects, in both English and Spanish. The chairs are old but comfortable. Louise speaks deliberately but laughs easily.
She and her husband, Mark, founded Casa Juan Diego in 1980. Casa is a House of Hospitality, as they’re termed, one of 216 such Catholic Worker communities in the U.S., each independent from the other, each committed to serving the poor while resisting war and social injustice. “There’s no structure,” explains Louise. “It’s a movement.”
Catholic Worker houses aren’t always staffed by Catholics, but all are definitively grounded in, and inspired by, the works of famous social activists Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, who founded the movement during the 1930s. Each site is funded by donations and staffed by volunteers who, like Louise, receive no salaries and often live on the premises.
Louise and Mark met when he was still a priest and she hadn’t yet found her faith—in a parallel to Maurin and Day themselves—on a chilly December day in 1962 in Youngstown, Ohio. Her faith bloomed, and the two fell in love. He left the priesthood to marry her; they had two children and moved to El Salvador to live a life of service. After the outbreak of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1980, they returned to Houston and, just at the right time, founded Casa Juan Diego.
“The refugees were flooding in after we came back to Texas,” Louise recalls. “Especially a lot of 15-year-old boys whose parents had been recruited into a war that didn’t make sense to them.”
Nearly 40 years later, young Salvadoran men are still crossing the border, this time seeking refuge from the gang violence that’s flourished in the aftermath of the civil war—violence that has turned the country into the so-called murder capital of the world. But it’s not only them seeking safety: It’s mothers, fathers, entire families, all looking to escape untenable situations of every stripe.
Sometimes the women are battered or pregnant; the men may be sick or paralyzed; often, they can’t receive government assistance due to their residency status, which could be undocumented. For these people, Casa is an earthly salvation.
Although the place doesn’t encourage undocumented immigration, it won’t turn away anyone seeking help. “Should we just throw them on the street?” Louise asks rhetorically.
Last November, Mark passed away at the age of 88. A notice was placed in the Houston Catholic Worker, the quarterly newspaper where the Zwicks had always kept supporters up to date on Casa’s needs. Hundreds of mourners packed into St. Anne’s for his funeral, including decades’ worth of volunteers who had lived and worked alongside the couple and their Blessed Poor.
“Mark used to say, ‘Catholics have this very special gift: We have the Blessed Trinity. We have the Blessed Eucharist. We have our Blessed Mother. And we have the Blessed Poor.’” The work of serving them continues unabated—indeed, the need grows greater as immigrant populations swell in Houston.
“There are countless numbers of people constantly coming with different needs, and we also have to do quite a few things to keep the place going. I solve that by scheduling my worries,” chuckles Louise.
When asked what she’s most grateful for at the end of a long day spent scheduling worries, feeding and clothing those in need, and keeping a roof over all of their heads, her answer is swift and simple: “The opportunity to serve the Lord.”
“It’s not always easy, but it’s a great gift,” she says. “We have so many opportunities to help, it’s overwhelming sometimes. Really, I think sometimes people don’t find meaning in life, but we’re overwhelmed with meaning.”