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Once a stranger, now a friend

Merida Ntirampeba’s first impression of St. Francis Xavier Church in Winooski was one of welcome.
 
She had left her native Berundi in 1993 and came to Vermont in 2004 after 11 years in an overcrowded refugee camp in Tanzania where threats and violence were not uncommon.
 
So after settling into an apartment in Winooski with her family, she wanted to go to church and was directed to the two-spired brick church on St. Peter St. “The first time I went to the church the community was welcoming. Everyone I met was so kind,” she said in Kirundi, her 24-year-old daughter, Claudine Nkurinziza, translating for her. Someone gave Ntirampeba money to help set up her new family home, another person offered her rides from church, and others helped her family with needed items like school backpacks.
 
Refugees bring to the parish an opportunity for grace, said Msgr. Richard Lavalley, pastor. They give members of the community the opportunity “to discover Christ in a new manner, an opportunity to see Christ — in a very real way — in need.”
 
In addition to helping this woman from Burundi, St. Francis Xavier Parish helps refugees and children of refugees in myriad ways from providing food and clothing, finding a place to live and engaging legal and interpreter services to providing scholarship assistance for children to attend Catholic schools and a cemetery plot for a dying man to ease his anxiety about where he would be buried.
 
It also supports the Catholic CARES Network.
 
“I do whatever I feel I am capable of doing,” said St. Francis parishioner Diane Potvin, the executive assistant to the pastor.
 
Clearly, she has extraordinarily capabilities as she escorts refugees — mostly from Africa — through their needs and requirements until they can function here on their own. She works closely with other agencies that are helping them.
 
“We do anything that makes them have a sense of self worth and that they are not alone,” Msgr. Lavalley said.
 
And the assistance is offered to Catholics and non Catholics alike. “The Gospel doesn’t say just take care of your own,” said Msgr. Lavalley, who was seen in local hip-hop trio A2VT’s video for their song "Winooski, My Town." (It is a tribute to the new home of three young refugees from Africa.)
 
There are about eight African families in St. Francis Xavier Parish, and numerous children have attended St. Francis Xavier School. Currently four Catholic students from refugee families are enrolled.
 
“Our Catholic values extend to everything we do, and the importance of charity and humility that comes with our faith is evident,” said Principal Eric Becker. “It’s important for us to be members of our Winooski community and see all the issues [refugees] are facing. We want to be good neighbors.”
 
Ntirampeba, 59, has given birth to 10 children; seven are still living — four in the United States and three in Burundi. She praises her parish for the help she and her family have received, both physical and spiritual assistance. This includes food, financial help, clothing and scholarships for St. Francis Xavier School and South Burlington’s Rice Memorial High School. Msgr. Lavalley baptized three of her children together.
 
“Only God knows how much the church and Msgr. Lavalley have done for me,” Ntirampeba said. “He is like a parent to me.”
 
She did not expect people here to be “so nice,” she continued. “I feel grateful and cared about. It’s supernatural for so much love.”
 
Her daughter, too, is grateful. Now working as an instructional aid at J.F. Kennedy Elementary School in Winooski, tries to “give back in any way I can.” Often that is by translating for new Americans and assisting with programs of Catholic CARES Network. “I never say no to them because they’ve done so much for us,” she said.
 
Her faith influences this attitude, and she cites the Gospel of Matthew: "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
 
Her motto, she added, is “treat everyone the way you want to be treated.”
 
Ntirampeba offered her gratitude to the people of St. Francis Xavier Parish “because they do so much for so many people.”
 
St. Francis Xavier Parish, once mostly populated by Winooski’s French Canadian immigrants and their families, “is not Winooski anymore,” Msgr. Lavalley said. “People come from all around.”
 
And they are embraced.
 
 
 
 
 

Sewing at The Francis Center

A new sewing class at The Francis Center at St. Mark Parish in Burlington is humming along with nine students, all of African heritage.
 
Their reasons for joining the four-Saturday-morning class include making their own clothing, making alterations for themselves and their family members, making gifts and teaching others to sew.
 
One woman, a Muslim, wants to make a hijab for her daughter.
 
“It’s simple” to make the Islamic headscarf, said volunteer sewing teacher Laurie Browne of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Winooski, owner of the Triple Loop costume shop in Essex Junction.
 
“I like to share what I know about sewing,” she continued. “My faith calls me to share those gifts. It’s part of who I am.”
 
The sewing students gather with two teachers and other helpers for two or three hours each week. They speak various languages, and Claudine Nkurinziza of Winooski, one of the sewing students, translates.
 
This is her first time taking a sewing class. “It’s expensive to pay someone to sew your clothes,” she said. “I like the experience of learning and this opportunity to try something new.”
 
Eleven-year-old Jessica Mujawimana, a sixth grader at St. Francis Xavier School in Winooski, is the youngest of the sewing students. “It’s very cool,” she said of her first sewing experience. “I don’t have to ask other people to sew clothes for me.”
 
In some African cultures, men sew as a job, not women.
 
Sharon Brown of St. Francis Xavier Parish, a parish nurse, coordinates CARES Catholic Network, a cooperative health and wellness ministry of St. Francis Xavier Parish and St. Mark Parish with pastors Msgr. Richard Lavalley and Father Dallas St. Peter, respectively. She helps with the class under the CARES umbrella and said some women buy African fabric for $20 for a simple dress then must pay someone about $80 to make it: “The dresses are out of their budget.”
 
At the sewing class, the students work with donated fabric and on donated used sewing machines. Stephen Richer of St. Joseph Co-Cathedral Parish in Burlington, a former Singer Sewing Machine Co. service manager, spent about 30 hours refurbishing the 18 portable machines that were donated in various conditions. “I had the know-how, and they needed someone to do it,” he commented. “If I can help people, I’ll help. It’s how I was brought up in my faith and in my family.”
 
Richer said a new machine would cost more than $100; but the sewing class participants will receive a class sewing machine at the successful completion of the program (one per household).
 
One of the sewing teachers, Marie Boisvert of Christ the King-St. Anthony Parish in Burlington, is an experienced seamstress. “God gave me that talent,” she said. “I give of myself wherever I can.”
 
Jessica, the 11-year-old student, likes the sewing teachers, describing them as helpful, patient and experienced.
 
“It’s nice they are helping everyone no matter our race or religion or background,” Nkurinziza said. “They see us all as people wanting to learn.”
 
Students and volunteers, Brown said, are learning more about what they have in common, not focusing on their differences. “Muslim women are working with Catholic women, holding each other’s children and talking about their shared interest in sewing.” (Childcare is provided.)
 
They are all stitching together friendships and realizing, as Brown said, “We are women. We sew. This is our bond.”
 
For more information or to donate materials or funds, contact Brown at 802-922-2958 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
 
 
 
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