Outreach ministry to migrant workers reaches from Vermont to Mexico

VERGENNES, Vt. (CNS) — For four years, Eleuterio “Teyo” Hernandez-Ortiz has worked on a Vermont dairy farm to help support his wife and four daughters in his hometown of San Jose Monteverde in southern Mexico.

It’s tiring, hard and dangerous work, and for a long time Hernandez-Ortiz was unable to find solace in the full practice of his Catholic faith.

He had no way to get to church, and even when he did, he could not understand the English spoken at Mass. There was no priest to hear his confessions in Spanish.

But last year, following the Burlington Diocesan Synod, members of St. Peter Church in Vergennes and St. Ambrose Church in Bristol — both served by Father Yvon Royer as pastor — decided to make the synod’s call for parishes to be more involved in evangelization concrete through service to local migrant workers.

A handful of migrant workers attended Sunday Mass at times, but fewer came after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Courtney Banach of St. Peter, who works on a farm with migrant workers, knew how much their faith meant to them — shown by the cross necklaces they wore or the images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, they had on their phones. “It’s what holds them together,” Banach said.

St. Peter parishioners formed the Migrant Outreach Team to meet with the workers, learn about their needs and determine how parishioners could help.

One of the first things Father Royer did was learn the prayer of absolution in Spanish so he could give absolutions after hearing the workers’ confessions with the help of an online translation program.

A Mass in Spanish for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 2019 was the first formal event at St. Peter. “It was a huge success,” Banach said. Team members hoped a dozen people would attend, but 120 came, including the workers, parishioners and local Job Corps students.

“We realized we had a lot of people interested in the ministry,” Father Royer said.

Twenty-seven parishioners took Spanish classes in the parish hall before they were curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic. A Good Friday Spanish language prayer service also was canceled.

When public Masses resumed, some parishioners began driving workers to daily liturgy. They also provided the workers with boots, jackets, clothing and even air conditioning.

Parishioners now are selling colorful handbags made by women in San Jose Monteverde who are unable to sell their wares in Mexico because of the pandemic. Two dollars from the $13 profit of each bag goes to the church in their town. The purse makers receive $11 of the profit; previously they usually made about 50 cents a day. Many of them are widows with no other source of income.

Hernandez-Ortiz appreciated all that the Vermont parishioners — including some from Our Lady of Good Help Church in Brandon — were giving the migrant workers, but his vision was that the ministry would expand to assist the workers’ families back in his hometown of 1,500. While 70% of residents are Catholic, a priest visits just once a year.

The parishioners embraced his idea and “adopted” the town, initially raising funds through rummage sales and donations to send $2,000 to build a needed reconciliation room at the church. They shipped food and more than 100 pounds of clothing and are now working with Rotary International to fund a $30,000 project for a second cistern for clean water.

“I am very happy and feel proud to be able to support my community with the help of these people,” Hernandez-Ortiz said through a translator. He is moved by their desire not only to help the migrant workers get to Mass but to help “with what is so important as supporting and changing lives in my community.”

Members of the Migrant Outreach Team realize the importance of the migrant workers’ labor on the farms of Vermont’s Addison County. “They leave home and come to work here on our farms so we can have good food on our tables,” said Donna Fox, a member of St. Ambrose Church. “We are so grateful, and this is a way to give back.”

Alicia Rodriguez of Our Lady of Good Help Church and her husband work on a local dairy farm; she is from Mexico. Rodriguez was pleased to hear about the work of the Migrant Outreach Team and wanted to help. “They are my people,” she said of the Mexican workers.

“They are our brothers and sisters in Christ,” Banach said. “It is our duty to help them by bringing the church to them and making it accessible and not letting them fall away while they are here. They support our agrarian economy.”

St. Ambrose parishioner Gerry Tetrault said it is a “Gospel imperative” to be kind to strangers and welcome immigrants. He credited Father Royer for his commitment, time and energy for the ministry.

For Father Royer, the effort to support the migrant workers and their families is “another reminder of (parishioners’) good hearts, very caring hearts.”

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Urban is managing editor of Vermont Catholic, the magazine of the Diocese of Burlington.

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