Father Jesus Flores, who celebrated 25 years as a priest last month, seems to have been destined to serve the migrant community.
Growing up in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, Father Flores said that he recalls seeing Mexicans from the south and immigrants from Central America pass through on their way to the United States. As a young priest serving in the Diocese of Hermosillo, Father Flores again encountered immigrants fleeing the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador who stopped for help at his parish.
"Many arrived at the parish," he said. "We would take them in and nourish them so they could recuperate to continue (their journey)."
Those experiences also led him to challenge himself on where his ministry should take him, noted Father Flores, who was ordained in the Diocese of Hermosillo in Sonora on April 25, 1985, following five years as a philosophy teacher at the Seminary of Hermosillo. Not one to celebrate anniversaries, Father Flores said that he would mark the milestone with fellow Diocese of Rochester priests at a Mass in May.
During his studies in Rome following ordination, Father Flores spent a summer working at an automotive factory in Germany and met workers from Turkey. That summer also became part of the framework of Father Flores’ life’s work to help immigrants. He later served 10 years as a pastor in his diocese before an opportunity arose to travel to Rochester with Sister Luci Romero to help migrant workers in the Sodus area.
Sister Romero, with whom he had worked with youths in Mexico, had received an invitation from Rochester diocesan staff working in Mexico to serve Mexican immigrants in the Rochester Diocese. Since her English is limited, Sister Romero asked Father Flores to come along. He said that at first he was unsure because while he had learned Italian and some German, his English also was far from fluent. Arrangements were made, however, for him to accompany her to Rochester to improve his English. It took almost a year to finalize the plans, he added, which included Father Bob Kreckel’s help in arranging for him to live at Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community in the Finger Lakes.
"And that’s how my adventure in Rochester began," said Father Flores, 56.
Brother Juan Lozada, director of the diocese’s Spanish Apostolate, said that the community was blessed when Father Flores chose to stay working with the migrant community indefinitely. The needs of that community compelled him to stay, Brother Lozada said, and Father Flores subsequently became the diocese’s director of migrant ministry.
"His work with the migrant community has been invaluable," added Brother Lozada. "Father Jesús was to spend only three months in Rochester and by the grace of God has gone on to spend many years with us doing extraordinary work. Thanks to his vision and that of Bernard (Grizard), the migrant community is well served."
In the past decade, Father Flores said that he has seen living conditions deteriorate for the workers. Before the increased law-enforcement presence in recent years, workers were able to live their lives without constant fear of possible detention. Even workers who are legal residents or have work documents now live in fear of harassment, he said.
"However, I do see a maturity," he said. "They have grown in their sense as an ecclestiastical community. They have grown in their desire to develop services."
And Father Flores has made a great impact in the community’s struggles with the increased law enforcement of recent years, Sister Romero remarked.
"He is well loved by the community" she added. "He is someone who is very honest … very evangelic.
Father Flores also has been a personal source of continued support as she continues with her own challenges with the English language, Sister Romero noted.
"He has been a blessing for this diocese and continues to be so," she said. "Because he understands the people and their culture, he has won their affection and their trust for his honesty and solidarity with the people."
"Father Jesus Flores’s ministry to the migrants is a true gift to all of us," and has provided others in the diocese with an understanding of the migrants’ deep faith and traditions, said Bernard Grizard, director of the diocese’s Parish Support Ministries that oversees migrant ministry. "His pastoral leadership helps all of us to experience God in a new way and see an image of Christ in the migrant worker that we never experienced before."
"I do not have words to describe the impact of Father Jesús’ ministry," said Brother Lozada. "It will be a tremendous loss when he retires."
Father Flores said that he is uncertain about his future. He has thought of returning to those roots that brought him to this country — perhaps working as a missionary on the Mexican border, he added. Or he may just stay put and continue working with the migrant community here, he added.
"This community needs a lot of companionship," added Father Flores. "But I will put my trust in the Holy Spirit to lead the way."