In 2002, the Archdiocese of Denver was confronted with the substantial needs of Denver's rapidly expanding Hispanic immigrant community. The response: Centro San Juan Diego ("The Centro"), a community resource center designed to holistically educate, empower, and equip Hispanic immigrants to become assimilated and productive United States citizens.
The Centro is located in the former Sacred Heart Catholic School building, which was erected in 1890. The school closed in 1979 and, after a stint as a parish center for Sacred Heart church, the building sat empty for years. Home only to pigeons, the building's existence was threatened when developers came knocking on the door of Sacred Heart's pastor, Rev. Marcus Medrano. However, Rev. Medrano refused to sell and, when the Archdiocese needed a place to house the new ministry, it extensively renovated the building to facilitate the Centro's programs. The beautifully restored and remodeled facility includes a 300-person capacity gymnasium, six classrooms, a computer lab, library, commercial kitchen, dining room, bathrooms with showers, and a chapel.
The mission of Centro San Juan Diego is to empower Hispanics in the Archdiocese of Denver, through education, so that they become faithful and integrated leaders in the Catholic Church and in society. To accomplish its mission, the Centro employs a holistic approach to cover all aspects of the human being. Beginning with the care of the soul, pastoral services offered include faith-based education workshops and programs, including youth, family, young adult, migrant, and prison ministries, as well as a Charismatical Renewal Movement. Numerous adult education classes are offered, including E.S.L. classes, computer literacy courses, G.E.D. preparation, and U.S. citizenship preparation. There are also professional leadership development and small business programs.
In addition, the Centro offers a monthly "legal night." These nights are extremely popular, with dozens of people waiting for hours in hopes of speaking with an attorney. The handful of volunteer attorneys from the Colorado Lawyers Committee Task Force provide valuable legal assistance on matters concerning family, immigration, and employment law, to name a few. The Christian Legal Society also conducts a legal aid clinic on a regular basis.
Centro San Juan Diego is busy, serving over 30,000 people per year. The Centro's popularity is due in part to the environment that Executive Director Louis Soto and his team have cultivated. The people whom the Centro serves feel safe. Here they are free to be poor, ignorant, and needy. And it is here, in a restored building, that lives are being restored, and family trees and communities are changing.
The education classes that are offered span elementary through college. Some adult learners begin their education upon arriving at the Centro. Having never completed elementary school in Mexico, they satisfy all of the educational requirements of their home country; some go even fur?ther. Some adults are learning to read and write for the first time. Some graduates of the Centro's G.E.D. program attend local colleges in the Denver area, while others pursue a distance-learning Bachelor's degree in religious studies offered through the Centro in partnership with Mexican Catholic University in Mexico.
All signs indicate that the Centro is successfully providing the necessary tools for Hispanic immigrants to integrate into American society. Soto says that many members of the Hispanic immigrant community are realizing the importance of assimilating into American society, and they are working hard to do so, juggling the responsibilities of family, work, and education. The hard work is paying off. Numerous administrators of U.S. citizenship tests have told Soto they can tell when a test-taker has been through the Centro San Juan Diego's citizenship program. How? They always pass.