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Tijuana relief center is channel for God’s mercy

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SAN DIEGO — Jesuit Father Gil Gentile first encountered Casa de Los Pobres (“The House of the Poor”) in the mid-1980s, and he’s been among its biggest fans and supporters ever since.

Located in Tijuana, Mexico, Casa de Los Pobres is an urban relief center founded and operated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, Queen of Peace. Started in 1941, its mission is to serve the poor by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick.

What makes Casa de Los Pobres such a special place?

“It’s doing directly … the works of mercy. It’s doing what Jesus told us to do,” explained Father Gentile, who now serves on the board of directors of Casa de Los Pobres USA, a U.S.-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit that supports the work of Casa de Los Pobres.

“It’s a living, shining example (of the works of mercy), and it’s a community, too,” he said.

At Casa de Los Pobres, there are three dining rooms; a full-time clinic; a “roperia” (clothing room); a patio area; and two chapels, in addition to offices, a convent for the sisters and rooms for guest volunteers.

A hearty breakfast is served every day for those in need; bags of groceries are distributed during a weekly “Bodega Day”; and an annual Christmas food distribution provides about 1,500 families with a bag of food, including chicken, beans, rice, canned vegetables, canned fruit, and candy for the children, not to mention blankets, jackets, shoes, and toys.

Father Gentile said that, because of COVID protocols, meals aren’t currently served in the dining rooms but are being packaged and distributed at the gates. The Franciscan Missionaries hope to open the patio area soon for outdoor dining and, ultimately, the dining rooms.

COVID’s impact has been felt in other ways, too. For instance, the pandemic forced the temporary closure of Casa de Los Pobres’ “roperia,” where people were able to purchase a bag of clothing for only $0.05.

“They ask for a small donation just to give people a sense that they’re buying the clothing and not just getting a handout,” explained Father Gentile, who said that pots, pans and other household items are also available for purchase there.

But, even with its existing ministries made more challenging since the COVID pandemic, the Franciscan Missionaries have continued to respond to new needs that present themselves.

For example, about a year ago, Casa de Los Pobres welcomed more than 130 Haitian refugees, housing them in tents on a small plot of land that the Franciscan Missionaries own in the “colonia” of Santa Julia. That temporary settlement was lovingly nicknamed “The Haitian Village of Santa Julia.”

“They don’t turn away anybody who comes to them,” Father Gentile said.

The Franciscan Missionaries also own land in Rosarito, where they established the City of Mercy in 1983. The property is the site of a mental hospital, a convent, and a farm that grows produce and raises livestock, including sheep, pigs, ostriches, and deer.

St. Ignatius of Loyola Mental Health Hospital, located in the City of Mercy, was founded as an in-patient facility. When its directors retired in 2019, the Franciscan Missionaries were unable to find anyone to oversee it for the same modest salary. So, they regretfully closed the hospital.

But, earlier this year, the hospital found a new medical director. It re-opened on Feb. 2 for out-patient treatment. Once sufficient funds are available, it is expected to re-open as a fully residential treatment hospital.

Casa de Los Pobres is “a place where compassion and mercy are the words of the day,” said Father Gentile, who despite having returned to his native New York, continues to support the organization. Among other things, he celebrates its annual Mass for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and, for his recent 75th birthday, raised about $3,000 through a Facebook fundraiser.

For more information or to donate, visit casadelospobresusa.com.

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