LEICESTER — A small community of migrant farmworkers gathered to worship at St. Thomas Aquinas Church on a warm Saturday evening in September. The Mass was celebrated in Spanish with liturgy guides and hymn sheets also provided in Spanish. Musical accompaniment was played on guitar and guittarón, the guitar-like, larger instrument commonly used in mariachi bands.
Father Jesús Flores, coordinator of migrant ministries for the Diocese of Rochester, delivered his homily to the farmworker families in a friendly, informal tone, asking questions and interacting with them.
“I am convinced that couples, families and single men, if they can connect with a simple experience of faith that touches their lives, can … overcome conflicts, loneliness and isolation,” he said in an email after the Mass.
Migrant ministry grows in Leicester
In 2020, the diocesan Office of Pastoral Services, which oversees migrant ministry, founded the St. Juan Diego Community and the Tepeyac Welcoming Migrant Center, which is located in the former St. Thomas Aquinas rectory and church hall. The ministry provides Livingston County migrant farmworkers and their families with such services as Masses in Spanish; a clothing dispensary; a food cupboard; preparation for receiving the sacraments; transportation to Masses, medical appointments and other places as needed; and one-on-one instruction in English as a second language.
During the ministry’s first year of operation, diocesan migrant-ministry staff realized that the needs of migrant farmworkers in Livingston County differed from those of migrant farmworkers in other areas of the diocese, noted Michael Sauter, diocesan director of the Office of Pastoral Services.
Whereas migrant farmworkers in other parts of the diocese generally have Sundays off, for example, Sauter said migrant farmworkers in Livingston County predominantly work 12-hour shifts on dairy farms and at times are not able to attend Sunday Masses.
Workers’ long shifts not only interfere with Sunday Mass attendance but also can contribute to feelings of isolation among farmworkers, said Carmen Rollinson, project manager for diocesan migrant ministry.
To combat such feelings among Livingston County farmworkers, Rollinson said that the ministry “goes on the road.”
Jorge Salgado, who coordinates migrant ministry for Monroe and Livingston counties, explained that he and ministry volunteers frequently make home visits with farmworkers on about 20 farms throughout the county.
When visiting the farmworkers, Salgado said he and the volunteers bring such items as toiletries, clothing and rosaries as a way to make connections and provide fellowship.
Hispanic cultures and language are celebrated
Rollinson said that in addition to providing services and home visits, the ministry also offers cultural events organized with assistance from some of the migrant farmworkers themselves.
“It’s great to share each other’s cultures and food,” said Michaela, a farmworker volunteer who asked that her last name not be used. “I like the peace, the union, the love that I feel. They give me the opportunity to read the word of God (at Mass), participate in activities, to share with other people and learn a lot about other customs.”
Members of the St. Juan Diego Community celebrate the Day of the Dead, Three Kings Day, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and other feasts that are dear to Mexicans and members of other Hispanic cultures. And once a year, the migrant ministry office sponsors and presents a summer festival to celebrate culture and build community among migrant farmworkers, Rollinson said.
Building a faith community that feels like family
All the migrant ministry team’s efforts are aimed at building community for the farmworkers so they feel at home and supported, Rollinson added.
Heidi, who asked that her last name not be used, was an active farmworker volunteer and member of the St. Juan Diego Community until moving to Ithaca recently. She stays in touch with her friends in Leicester, noting that the community is still like family to her.
“God puts people in your life when they make you feel good. Someone (can) feel useful in a community,” she said, describing the importance of serving others.