An all-day retreat featuring speakers, food, confession and Mass was held for migrant workers on June 23 at Blessed Sacrament in Burford. Pastor Peter Ciallella is at left in the top row. Photo courtesy Blessed Sacrament Parish

A helping hand for workers

  • August 6, 2019

To those ministering to migrant workers in the Diocese of Hamilton in Ontario, the efforts are a two-way street.

These workers, who come long distances to work in Canada as part of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, “are filling an economic need here as well as fulfilling an economic need for themselves,” said Sarah Guinta, co-ordinator of the diocese’s Office of Justice and Peace.

And to Fr. Peter Ciallella, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Burford, the exchange goes well beyond economic, particularly for the workers.

“They are the ones picking the crops, helping to bring food on our table,” Ciallella said. “They keep our local farming industry going and our food costs down. We benefit from their hard work. They, of course, benefit from having a decent livelihood to support themselves and their families. 

“But the many hours of labour require tremendous sacrifice on their part, such as the time away from their families. Any support we can offer in terms of spiritual care and outreach are very much appreciated.”

Ciallella’s parish is providing some of that care. Blessed Sacrament hosts monthly 

Spanish-language Masses and receptions for the migrant workers in the Brant County area during the agricultural growing season and recently was the site of a day-long retreat for them. Other diocesan communities, such as Port Elgin, Lynden and Waterdown, also offer spiritual care for the workers, as do other ministry leaders, such as Fr. Francisco Cruz and Deacon Juan Carlos Veliz. Some offer confession before Mass and catechesis in Spanish.

Now, the diocese is using its One Heart, One Soul Campaign to give a financial boost to the efforts to minister to migrant workers, with $500,000 of campaign funds earmarked for the ministry.

“We really are in the beginning stages of formalizing the structure that we have within this diocese,” Guinta said. “We understand that this is a community in need, a community that is often isolated … and that there are needs that are not being met.” 

The Hamilton Diocese, she said, will be collaborating with and learning from other dioceses, particularly the neighbouring Diocese of London, which has a more advanced ministry.

Transportation will be a primary use for the funds, according to Guinta and Ciallella. The renting of buses to take workers to and from services or other events “can be a costly investment for a smaller parish,” Ciallella said, who added that it can cost $400 round-trip to rent one bus. The London diocese, he said, can spend as much as $30,000 a year for weekly transportation during the April-to-October season.

Other uses of the campaign funds could include:

• Part-time staff support: “One disadvantage we have is not visiting the farms,” Ciallella said. “I don’t have the resources or personnel to send people out to see how the guys are doing and what’s going on.” A paid staff member could take on that role.

• Volunteer support for more events: Guinta envisions providing materials and resources that would help parishes and volunteers do more to assist workers, such as with English as a Second Language training, and to welcome them when they arrive in the spring or to celebrate days and events special to the workers — such as Mexican Independence Day in September and Christmas for those who stay year-round.

• Health and wellness: Better transportation — a bus rather than a bicycle, perhaps, improves worker safety, as would travelling health clinics, Guinta said.

The efforts of the diocese don’t go unappreciated by the migrant workers.

“Any opportunity to break up the monotony, to feel less isolated, to be together with others — but also especially for the guys who are particularly faithful, having an opportunity to receive communion, go to confession, do all those things — is paramount,” Guinta said. “Paramount to their mental and spiritual well-being in a very hard, backbreaking, day-in, day-out job.”

The retreat held at Blessed Sacrament in June had about 15 participants attend for the whole day, with about 70 attending the Mass that ended the day, Ciallella said. They enjoyed the offerings, which included speakers and confession, he said, and it reflects what he hears from the workers: “There’s a community here where I can speak my language and I don’t feel like I’m an outsider.”

Guinta and Ciallella see the ministry as an important element of the work of the Church.

“I think that it is a ministry that touches on so many different priorities” of the Church, Guinta said. “The dignity of the human, the ability for dignified work, advocating for those who often don’t have as much as others. … These are individuals that we should be rallying around and supporting.”

For Ciallella, it goes back to the Gospel.

“‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ Matthew 25:35,” he said. “It’s also important that we see them not just as workers … that they’re part and parcel of life because they spend more of their time here than they do back home. Their lives are here and they’re invested socially and economically, so spiritually we need to make that part of their care when they’re here.”

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