ENFIELD – In summertime, tobacco grows practically like a weed under white nets and in open fields throughout the tobacco valley of central Connecticut.
Near the end of June, when the plants are about knee-high, migrant workers who have journeyed thousands of miles by bus from Mexico and beyond, or by air from Puerto Rico, start arriving for three-month jobs cultivating the crop on Connecticut farms. And with their arrival, a unique Hispanic ministry at St. Patrick Parish continues its longstanding program to cultivate their faith.
Every Monday night from late June through August, two school buses pick up 100 men or more at their camp in Windsor to take them to Mass and a meal at St. Patrick’s.
Though its efforts are centered on providing bus transportation to the weekly Mass and meal, the ministry offers a wide range of services to this temporary migrant community each season. Perhaps chief among them is the evangelical work of preparing many of the workers to receive the sacraments of initiation, an event that has become an annual celebration at St. Patrick’s.
This year, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Peter A. Rosazza administered the sacrament of confirmation to six of the men and first holy Communion to 27 men at a Mass on July 22, with assistance from Father John Weaver, pastor of St. Patrick’s; and Father José Siesquen-Flores, of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Springfield, Mass., the ministry’s regular celebrant and homilist for the Spanish Mass.
After the liturgy, the bishop posed for photos with a number of the men to mark the milestone in their journey of faith.
Started 15 years ago by the late Father Francis Browne, then pastor, the seasonal outreach now represents only a small part of the work of a full-time ministry. Since Father Browne drove the first bus himself, several pastors, including Father Weaver, have supported the program. Over those years, the parish has embraced and spread the faith to thousands of men by supporting their commitment to faith and family while they work to send money home.
Father Browne’s inspiration in 1998 to establish the program came from a parishioner from Mexico, Noe (pronounced No-ay´) Charles, who has nurtured the ministry’s expansion and now serves as the parish’s minister to Hispanics. Ms. Charles, who also drove a bus to and from the tobacco camps during the first seasons, recalled that her personal experience around her home in Guadalajara, Mexico, made her compassionate toward needy farm workers there. She translated that need to the men working near her parish each summer.
Father Weaver, who has been pastor of St. Patrick’s for seven years, said he places full trust in Ms. Charles to manage all Hispanic ministry programs.
"She is incredibly versatile. Noe performs the job descriptions for 10 different people," he said.
Ms. Charles says her work is made possible through the efforts of many people. For example, an annual Lenten outreach program conducted by religious education director Carolyn Dague encourages children and families to donate personal-care goods for distribution among summer camp workers. The toiletries, clothing, shoes, linens and religious items are distributed weekly.
Ministry volunteers say that Ms. Charles is known and loved by the workers for what she does at the camp and church. Many keep in touch with her and renew acquaintance on return visits. Worker Juan Guerrero, who arrived from Mexico City with a group of 200 men, called her "an angel." Returning for his second season in Connecticut, Mr. Guerrero said that the Monday night Mass is very important to him while he’s away from home.
The parish offers a Mass in Spanish at 6 p.m. Mondays, but changes the time to 7:30 each summer to accommodate the tobacco workers’ schedule.
One recent Monday, Mr. Guerrero spoke to the Transcript in Spanish with translation assistance from Arturo Iriarte, parish social ministry coordinator for the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office of Catholic Social Justice Ministry. During dinner, Mr. Iriarte visited with the men, sharing his experiences from his 15 years with the program.
Mr. Iriarte’s office provides support for St. Patrick’s through a grant under the Cooperative Parish Sharing Program. As evidence of the sustaining impact of the ministry, the tobacco workers’ outreach program was recognized in 2011 with the Office of Catholic Social Justice Ministry’s first Dr. Charlie Schlegel Award for exemplifying the mission of the grant program, meeting the needs of marginalized people and promoting the principles of Catholic social teaching within the archdiocese.
Before the buses arrived from the farm on that recent Monday, the church was bustling with its usual routine. Father Siesquen-Flores welcomed the regulars from the Hispanic communities of St. Patrick’s and neighboring parishes, heard confessions and recited the rosary with them. Ms. Charles welcomed each person with a warm smile and a handshake. Food service volunteers arranged the serving tables in the church hall for the traditional Mexican buffet after Mass. Abel Gamboa and four other guitarists set up their instruments and conferred about the music they would play and sing during Mass.
Mr. Gamboa, a longtime volunteer with the tobacco workers’ program, said he is proud that the parish is carrying on Father Browne’s vision. In the ministry’s early years, Mr. Gamboa coached soccer, an activity he called a valuable social and physical outlet for the men.
Nowadays, after the Mass, Mr. Gamboa also helps serve the meal.
The sermon Father Siesquen-Flores delivered centered on "la familia Cristiana," the Christian family, and the merits of humility, compassion and love. At the conclusion of the Mass, the priest invited the congregation to process to the rear of the church, where he led veneration of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
When the men lined up to head to the church hall, many used cell-phone cameras to take photos of the church and each other.
After a hearty meal, they boarded the buses with smiles, thanking Ms. Charles and others from the ministry who passed out candies.