Fr. Peter Ciallella and volunteers assembled 220 care packages for migrant workers, who have been hit hard by COVID-19 in southwestern Ontario. Photo courtesy Fr. Peter Ciallella

Church reaching out to migrant workers

  • June 21, 2020

After the death of a second migrant worker of COVID-19 and at least 240 positive tests on just five farms, Deacon Tony Hogervorst is praying for thousands of seasonal workers on 176 farms across southwestern Ontario.

As part of the Diocese of London’s Migrant Worker Ministry, which is based in Windsor, Ont., Hogervorst helps provide 8,000 to 10,000 summer migrant workers access to Mass and the sacraments, as well as support other services provided by area parishes.

“We hear of people falling ill and others who are afraid of the virus. Certainly it’s concerning,” Hogervorst told The Catholic Register.

Near Brantford, Ont., Fr. Peter Ciallella and a small group of volunteers have distributed gift bags of hygiene supplies and snacks to about 120 migrant workers quarantined at two hotels. Their call for donations resulted in 220 care packages with everything from shaving cream and deodorant to cloth masks and messages of hope in Spanish.

Donations poured in from surrounding communities and from as far away as Toronto. The extra gift bags will be distributed to other migrant workers in the Brantford area.

Ciallella, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Burford, about 15 minutes west of Brantford, and administrator of St. Anthony Daniel in the village of Scotland, is working with other area churches and communicating with workers through What’sApp.

Direct contact with the workers is difficult this year, since the cancellation of the regular Spanish-language Masses Ciallella celebrates in Burford and Lynden every two weeks. But Ciallella has heard through the grapevine that some workers are fearful — anxious about both their bunkhouse living situations and working side-by-side in vegetable fields.

Ordinary Catholics should be concerned about the people who put food on their tables, Ciallella said.

“They are among us. They are here eight months of the year,” said Ciallella. “We have to do everything we can to ensure that their safety is being looked after.”

Hogervorst said there is little he and his co-workers in the Migrant Worker Ministry can do for people in Windsor-Essex County they call, “Our brothers and sisters who labour among us.”

The two dead workers are 24-year-old Rogelio Munoz Santos, who died June 6 in Windsor Regional Hospital, and 31-year-old Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, both from Mexico. More than one-fifth of Windsor-area COVID-19 cases are among migrant workers. All of them were screened before coming to Canada, where they also underwent a compulsory 14-day quarantine upon arrival. They acquired the virus in Canada.

Mexico has since halted sending temporary workers to Canada as it assesses with Canadian authorities why the two workers died.

Under normal circumstances, the Migrant Worker Ministry contacts workers either at Mass or in bunkhouse visits, but those meetings have been banned by local health authorities.

“The whole COVID thing complicates our ability to communicate with workers,” Hogervorst said.

The 14-day quarantine period is precisely when Hogervorst’s group usually makes first contact. As it stands, Hogervorst doesn’t even have cell phone numbers for this year’s workers.

“The issue is, in the past our ministry was a face-to-face thing in church. We would meet them at the workplace, or more likely in their bunkhouses or something like that,” he said.

On May 26, Windsor-Essex medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed issued a Section 22 order requiring farms ensure migrant workers are restricted to just one workplace. As of June 4 the Windsor-Essex Public Health unit had recorded 164 positive and 53 negative tests on area farms.

On the northern shore of Lake Erie, the Scottlyn Group farm in Vittoria, Ont., has had at least 169 of its 221 workers test positive.

As churches gradually re-open, Ciallella is hoping parishes will gradually re-start their regular ministry with migrant workers, providing them with extra clothing, food, occasional English lessons, a place to socialize and WiFi access so they can call home.

In Windsor-Essex, Hogervort’s operation is streaming Spanish Masses for workers online. “We’re building this web presence, hoping that they’ll link to it and pass the word,” Hogoverst said.

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