In the late 1960s, growing numbers of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking immigrants of Catholic faith began to arrive in Washington upon fleeing civil unrest, war, and poverty in their home countries. Many settled in the contiguous neighborhoods of Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Mount Pleasant. Catholic priests and ministers in the area recognized a growing need for religious services in the immigrants’ native languages—the Archdiocese of Washington responded to this desire by opening the Centro Catolico Hispano (Spanish Catholic Center) in Mount Pleasant.
The Center offered English classes in an attempt to assist immigrants in their transition into American society. Over the years, the Center expanded to offer legal and employment advice, medical and dental services, in addition to informal and formal youth programs. Mark Poletunow, a Capuchin friar, worked with the Latinx Community in Washington for over two decades. His service was both formal and informal--as part of the community, he offered spiritual, pastoral, and individual care to youth and families.
He described the Spanish Catholic Center's efforts and the unique challenges of immigrant youth: "We would arrange trips and activities and weekly gatherings. We would also be available for just counseling and encouragement and listening. There were a lot of issues that just as young people were dealing with as any young person would be dealing with in any culture, but it was in a layer of complexity because of dealing with two different cultures, trying to deal with two different cultures at the same time.”
Numerous buildings housed offices of the Spanish Catholic Center throughout its 50-year operation (including the Kenesaw building), but the current location is on Monroe Street, just a few blocks from Mount Pleasant's main business area. The Spanish Catholic Center's work in the community was expansive, memorable, and consistent. Faith-driven members of the organization and surrounding Catholic churches lived in the community and provided essential services for the neighborhood. Mark Poletunow described his fellow workers and their approach to community care in his interview with Patrick Scallen:
"There were some great religious sisters, great laypeople, brothers from my own Capuchin community and other religious communities that would rally around a lot of the youth and say to them, "You're okay. We will walk this with you, and we will help you through this."
Mark Poletunow interview by Patrick Scallen (November 18, 2017), Humanities DC, DC Oral History Collaborative.
Katie Gardner Special to The Washington Post. (1988, May 05). "Health Care and Hispanics: Spanish Center Widens Outreach." The Washington Post (1974-) Retrieved from Proquest.