In Your Midst
A New Home for St. James ESL
Nov. 2005

St. James ESL celebrates the dedication of the Pastoral Care Center with new offices and tutoring rooms

    In 1975, in the last months of the Vietnam war, Washington Governor Dan Evans extended an unprecedented, unconditional welcome to thousands of Vietnamese refugees. In the Archdiocese of Seattle, with the encouragement of Archbishop Hunthausen, Catholic parishes strove to reach out to these refugees with the help and hospitality they so urgently needed.

Sister Terence Maureen Reilly founded the St. James ESL program in 1975 in response to an influx of Vietnamese refugees in the Settle area following the fall of Saigon.  Sister Terence Maureen died in August 2005.

    At St. James Cathedral, Sister of the Holy Names Terence Maureen Reilly, a member of the Seattle Literacy Council, began to share the gift of the English language with the refugees. On July 16, 1975 (just three months after the fall of Saigon), the first twenty-five Vietnamese students began attending English classes in Cathedral Hall. The students came from a great variety of backgrounds. Some were farmers or laborers who had had no formal education of any kind; others were semi-literate; still others were highly-educated professionals, doctors, lawyers, college professors. Some had rudimentary English; most had none at all. Once the needs of the students had been determined, class work and individual tutoring could begin. Sister Terence Maureen had forty-five tutors trained in short order, and the students were able to acquire the skills they needed to get around in a new and incredibly different world.

    The program has grown in extraordinary ways in the thirty years since that memorable summer of 1975. Today, under the leadership of Chris Koehler, program director, the St. James ESL program serves students from thirty-seven countries from all parts of the world. More than 120 volunteers each year provide some 150 students with over 8,000 hours of English language instruction.

    St. James ESL specializes in responding to needs which other ESL programs do not address. This has led to the development of the Citizenship program, which guides students through the process of taking their citizenship exam and becoming U. S. citizens; and tutoring for people with special needs, the blind, those with learning disabilities, homebound seniors, and at-home moms.

    But the ESL program is about more than just learning English. By bringing together students and teachers, it promotes individual growth as well as a stronger community. Both students and volunteers enrich their lives and establish respectful and caring relationships.

    Mastering the English language can be a life-changing experience for these students. It opens doors to them, connects them with the community. It allows grandparents to speak to their American-born grandchildren. Students can be confident in filling out job applications, going to job interviews, even participating in college coursework.

For many years, all of this amazing work has happened out of two small rooms overlooking Cathedral Hall. The new Pastoral Care Center not only provides ample office space for St. James ESL staff, but also includes three new tutoring rooms ideal for one-on-one tutoring as well as small group conversation. The new space will help the program to grow as it continues its mission of helping refugees and immigrants become citizens, develop their potential, and pursue their goals.

Back to the November 2005 Issue of In Your Midst