Building up community by breaking down barriers

Categories: Around the Diocese

April 10, 2015

Melrose immigrants find welcoming place to learn English, share stories

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Peggy Stokman treats each person she meets as a character in an unread book. She carefully listens as the stories of newcomers in her community of Melrose unfold, specifically those of Latinos who want to learn English as their second language.

Stokman and her husband John, who passed away in 2010, helped found the Sauk Centre/Melrose Literacy Project after moving to Melrose in 2001 from Grand Island, Neb., where they were involved in Latino ministry.

“John and I had only been in Melrose for four days when someone at the Spanish Bible study we attended asked us to teach him English,” she explained. “One student led to another and that’s how the project began.”

She says their move to Minnesota was “like a call from God.”

“When John retired, we decided to move back to Minnesota, where we both grew up, to be closer to our children, and we wanted to move to a town where we could continue to serve the Latino people. We were inspired by all the work Father Vince Lieser, [Franciscan] Sister Adela Gross and the community leaders in Melrose had done to bring both cultures together.”


As Peggy Stokman, right, and Maria Carrillo work on English reading skills, Maria’s granddaughter Valentina, 3, wants to share how well she can count in English April 2 at the English Center in Melrose. Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

According to the U.S. Census, the number of people of Latino origin in Melrose nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010.

Stokman, a parishioner of St. Mary Parish in Melrose, has taught English as a second language for 13 years and began teaching citizenship classes in 2008. Melrose is now home to the Melrose English Center, part of the Northwest Consortium for Adult Basic Education, where Stokman currently teaches basic English to five students ranging in age from 25 to 78 as well as five citizenship students.

“It is important for the Anglo and Latino communities to come together because we live, work, worship, shop and school together,” Stokman said.
Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, says the relationships Stokman and others in the Melrose area and elsewhere are bridging are vital for putting faith into action.

“Peggy is a living example of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself,” Langer said. “She goes out of her way to get to know the Latino community and learn how she can best walk with them in this new land. Peggy sees the dignity of each person and acts on the call that we, as Catholics, are all meant to answer.”

One of Stokman’s students, Maren Botello, came to the English Center in mid-November to begin studying to become a U.S. citizen.

“I asked her what her English goals were during our lessons,” Stokman said. “She told me that after she got her citizenship, she wanted to get her GED.”

Botello said, “I also want to learn more English so I can talk to my children’s teachers during conferences and not need a translator.

“I go to classes in Spanish for parents of first Communion students at St. Mary’s but when my daughter makes her first Communion, I want to be in the parents’ classes in English,” she said.

To pass her citizenship test, Botello must understand all the questions on the 21-page N-400 application form, know the answers to 100 questions about civics and U.S. history and be able to read and write sentences, Stokman explained.

Her interview at the immigration office in Minneapolis was the Monday after Easter. She passed.

“Citizenship students work so hard,” Stokman said. “Their big smiles when they pass are all the thanks a teacher needs. Citizenship opens up so many doors for them.”

Another of Stokman’s students is Maria Carrillo, who attends the English Center twice a week because she thinks “if a person lives in the United States, they need to learn English.”

Carrillo attends the weekly school Mass at St. Mary’s to support her grandson, Emmir, who is in kindergarten there.

“She wants to learn how to say the Mass prayers in English,” Stokman said.

Rooted in faith

Langer said that at the upcoming “Inspiring Hope, Celebrating our Community” event set for 9:30 a.m. on April 25 at St. Mary’s Cathedral, attendees will hear more stories like those Stokman is accustomed to hearing.

“Pope Francis is telling us we have to look at our neighbor, whoever they are and wherever they are from, and see them as people who are created by God and loved by God,” Langer said. “We can do that by listening, as Peggy does, to their stories.”

For Stokman, working with the Latino community is a ministry. Her faith is part of everything she does, she said.

“I encourage my students to take the initiative to greet people in stores with a smile and a ‘Good morning,’ ”she said. “Anglos can do the same. Maybe we can’t always understand each other but I want them to know they are welcome. God will build on any gesture of hospitality.”

Prayer service, reception set for April 25

Stories have the power to reveal the nature of God, teach truth, create community between groups of people, and set examples for how to live a Christian life.

On Saturday, April 25, Bishop Donald Kettler invites the public to come together to hear the stories of three local Latino immigrants, to pray together and to build relationships across the diocese.

“It is a celebration of hope — hope encased in prayer,” said Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the St. Cloud Diocese.

The event, “Inspiring Hope, Celebrating our Community,” begins with a prayer service at 9:30 a.m. at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud. Afterward, guests are invited to a reception where local legislators have been invited to continue the discussion on topics of immigration reform. Multicultural entertainment also will be a part of the festivities.

“It is a chance for us to come together in solidarity,” Langer said. “An opening for us all to get to know each other, to better understand each other’s stories and to recognize what the church is calling us to do in response to those stories.”

— Kristi Anderson