Addison County Catholics ask migrant neighbors ‘How can we help?’
“What are your needs?” asked the pastor and parishioners of St. Peter Church in Vergennes and St. Ambrose Church in Bristol to members of their community who provide migrant labor on area farms.
The conversation came after Father Yvon Royer and the parishioners of St. Peter’s and St. Ambrose’s post-Diocesan Synod Action Plan Teams identified outreach to migrant workers as an important component in reaching out to the greater community.
To begin the conversation of how best to serve their immigrant neighbors, they invited some of the migrant workers to one of the Action Plan Team meetings and asked, “What are your needs? What are your fears? How can we help?”
The farm workers shared that their work schedules and lack of transportation make it difficult for them to get to Mass or to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation; both prohibit them from receiving the Eucharist.
Addison County parishioners sprang into action to meet these specific needs.
Father Royer began visiting the farms where many of the migrant community members work and live. A farmer himself, he visits with them to build relationships and offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Some of the workers now attend Mass at the parishes when they are able. Parishioners volunteer to provide transportation.
Language barriers remain a challenge, but Father Royer learned the Act of Absolution in Spanish and uses Google Translate or a volunteer translator to help him when he visits the farms. Parishioners have developed a bilingual booklet for Mass and are creating posters and other materials in Spanish for the parishes.
The pastor and parishioners of St. Bernadette-St. Genevieve Parish in Bridport and Shoreham also identified outreach to immigrants as a priority when brainstorming ways to increase parish vibrancy as a result of the Diocesan Synod.
The St. Bernadette-St. Genevieve Action Plan Team reflected on what is means to be a parish and concluded that it’s not simply about getting more members, doing charity or advocating for public policy. Rather, the goal of the parish is that “the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety,” with one way being to “foster works through which the spirit of the Gospel is promoted” (Canon 528).
Outreach to area immigrants is one way that St. Bernadette-St. Genevieve is responding to the Gospel imperative to welcome the stranger.
“There was a sense that we should do something involving social justice,” said Father Luke Austin, pastor, recognizing that works of justice are teaching moments for the Gospel.
St. Bernadette-St. Genevieve has a history of hosting Spanish Masses and Mexican Consulate visits, with the support of parishioner Cheryl Connor. However, after the death of Father Gerard Leclerc, who spoke fluent Spanish, the Masses subsided, and the Consulate visit moved to a larger space.
Now, the Addison County parish is grateful to Edmundite Fathers Lino Oropeza and Marcel Rainville and Vocationist Father Eric Ugochukwu, pastor of Our Lady of Seven Dolors in Fair Haven, for celebrating Masses in Spanish again.
Parishioners have volunteered through Addison Allies to teach English and provide transportation to area immigrants, and St. Bernadette-St. Genevieve Parish is organizing a winter clothing drive to benefit immigrant families.
The social ministry has also provided an opportunity for relationship building among the community between students at Middlebury College, farm workers and Addison County parishioners.
“It is a reminder of our universal Catholic faith, that these are our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and we have a connection to them,” Father Austin said.
Father Royer notices excitement when people hear that the Catholic parishioners are reaching out to the community in this way and that these important relationships are being formed in Addison County.
“People are glad,” he said. “There’s a twinkle in their eyes when they hear about it.”
Another thing parishioners have learned from their immigrant neighbors is the importance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to them. For her feast day on Dec. 12, St. Peter’s will host a multifaceted celebration including Spanish music, Mass, a magic show and a meal to share. The 270 migrant workers in Addison County will be invited to attend, and parishioners look forward to sharing, serving and learning together.
—Originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.