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Friars of Manchester Church Known for Serving City's Immigrant Population Reflect on Their Work

Peter Biello/NHPR

In the basement of St. Anne - St. Augustin church in Manchester, class is in session. About two dozen people - mostly immigrants to New Hampshire - gather around tables to learn English as a second language.

Twenty-eight year old Mariam Soulama came to the United States from Burkina Faso about five years ago speaking French, and not knowing much about life in the U.S.

“I learn everything here,” she says. “Father also help us to learn and have everything here to write, to read. Yeah, I like that.”

The “Father” she’s referring to is Father Sam Fuller. He’s a capuchin friar and church leader, and he’s been a champion of the church’s programs for immigrants in the Manchester area, programs that help with issues like housing, healthcare and employment.

“We’ve had the chief of police here talk to their population,” says Fuller. “We’re having a workshop on TPS. Temporary protective status. This is a huge issue.”

Recently, the friars stunned the immigrants they serve by announcing they’d be leaving the church later this year. They say there aren’t enough friars in the region, so a multi-state realignment means these friars will be reassigned elsewhere.

Fuller says he’s optimistic the services for immigrants will continue, but he says he’s aware that these programs remain in what he calls “the crosshairs.” 

Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

You've described this church as being in the crosshairs. Can you explain why you would you would describe it that way?

Well, the largest community is Hispanic and quite a few are undocumented. I mean, we have 11 million undocumented in the United States. It's no secret. So this parish is home to many, many refugees and immigrants. And they come here looking for a church and they hear about St. Anne - St. Augustin and they're welcome to come here. So we have quite a few undocumented here.

Credit Peter Biello/NHPR
Sister Madonna, Mariam Soulama, and Father Sam in the basement of St. Anne - St. Augustin church.

And when you say someone is looking at you through the crosshairs, who is that? Is that the government or...?

Well, you know, the national conversation is pretty horrendous. And what can I say? We all know it. It's heartbreaking. It's more than heartbreaking. It's horrible. And so the fear is palpable in our own parishioners here. And the tearing of the fabric of community is palpable and heart wrenching. Again, we've had many families who've been impacted directly, being deported. It's tearing... well, as a Catholic priest, it's tearing at the body of Christ. 

The friars have done quite a bit for immigrant communities, Hispanic communities. Can I ask you about a few of these programs that you've been doing it? Maybe the Granite State Organizing Project? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah. Just to say, from the beginning we've been involved with supporting the immigrants, whether it's the Tyson meat plant, which closed. We had many African parishioners who were there. Once they pulled out, we stepped up to the plate, insisted on severance pay and training for other jobs. The bedbug... there was a big bedbug crisis here in Manchester. We had a friar directly involved in that. So we've had a long history of working to advocate for the basic rights of our parishioners.

And so, of course, with the current administration, the immigration issue came to the fore. And so we had to step up the plate. These are complex issues and also heart wrenching. When a family all of a sudden has a loved one who that day just goes off to work, a normal, seemingly normal day going to work and then he's seized and he lands in jail over in the Strafford County jail in Dover. And so the issues became complex and we realized we needed to have a place where people could come, not simply for immigration issues, but simply for their own needs, whether translation or any questions they might have. So that's when we form the Central Latino just over a year ago. And we continue to expand that by having... I mean we're having workshop for flower arrangement, you know. It's not just political. It's just building community.

Credit Peter Biello/NHPR
Father Sam Fuller.

So how do you see these programs, the partnership with the Granite State Organizing Project, the Centro Latino de Hospitalidad... how are those going to continue without the friars here?

That's a good question. And I know there's a great deal of concern about that. As important as the friars might be, we also realize it's not dependent on one individual. It's multifaceted. But there's no question about it. We as friars have been a key part of that. What is the future? We don't know, but we hope that it continues. We have to realize that this is community outreach, it's integral to the community. We just have to build on that. And that's the best we can hope for.

So where are the friars going? Where are you going?

We don't know. You know, our whole province is actually under some difficult times. We just announced we're closing a second parish outside New York City on Long Island. And we're also closing a major ministry, Capuchin Youth Family Ministries. We're not closing it, but we're selling the property and the facility to collaborate with another group of friars. So we don't know. We have our chapter in the end of May in Hartford, Connecticut. We have it every three years. But believe me, no one knows. You have to wait for a chapter and see where the cards land, and then we have discussions as a province.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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