Seasonal workers made to feel at home

  • July 29, 2010
Seasonal workerMONTREAL - Thousands of agricultural workers from abroad have come and gone with the growing seasons since the 1970s, unnoticed by most Canadians. But a Spanish Mass that drew nearly 2,000 people to St. Joseph’s Oratory Basilica July 18 was evidence that, for a few faith-filled Quebecers, seasonal workers are as important to the community as their neighbours.

“It’s easy to develop a friendship with them. They’re just so respectful,” Louise Guinois said. Guinois is a former farm owner from St. Remi, Que., and organizer of the annual pilgrimage to the Oratory.

When Guinois and her (now deceased) husband welcomed Mexican workers to their farm in the ’70s, they saw a need to have Mass celebrated for the workers in Spanish and develop friendships. So she and a group of volunteers formed the “Fraternité Québécoise Latino-Américaine” (Latino-American Quebecois Fraternity) which for many years has been celebrating Mass in Spanish during the summer months for migrant workers in the St. Remi area.

During a personal pilgrimage to the Oratory eight years ago, Guinois said God spoke in her heart, asking her to gather all His workers to Him in Montreal. And so she did, inviting workers to come, beginning in 2003. This year, an estimated 20-30 busloads of workers attended the pilgrimage.

Bernard Leblanc, communications representative for the Fraternité, said Guinois welcomes workers into her home for fellowship on a regular basis.

“It’s like her place is an open house,” said Leblanc, a volunteer who has been getting to know the workers for nearly a decade. Leblanc said the migrants are generally treated well by the farmers and he enjoys helping out where possible — like recently installing Spanish channels for the workers to watch the World Cup soccer matches.

Fr. Victor Guevara, a retired El Salvadoran priest who celebrates the Spanish Masses, said the pilgrimage is very important to the workers.

“They have an extraordinary faith, the kind of people who are capable of giving their life for us,” Guevara said.

Besides a weekly trip to town for groceries, the workers stay on the farms most of the time. There are approximately 7,000 workers in Quebec this year, half of whom are Mexican and the other half  Guatemalans, with about 150 Jamaicans. In Ontario there are more than 15,000 workers from Mexico and the Caribbean.

Workers across both provinces arrive in a staggered timeline, some as early as January if they work in nurseries, and can stay as late as December. Many stay for the outdoor growing season. But despite the hardship of not seeing their families for months on end — and without the advantage of the Internet — the lifestyle is still better than the alternative of poverty.

“Overall, we’re very happy,” said Jose Leon, a husband and father of four who has travelled from Guatemala to work in Quebec for the past six years. “It’s difficult, but I give thanks to God that He gave us this opportunity to gain our living so that the time we do spend with our family is sweeter.”

Visiting St. Joseph’s Oratory has a special significance for many of the Mexicans, said Nicolas Juarez Garcia, a father of two from Tlaxcala, Mexico.

“We compare the importance of St. Joseph’s Oratory with the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico,” Garcia said. “It’s really something to have the mother of Jesus over there and the father of Jesus over here — in two grandiose places that we can visit within the same year.”

Because of the general isolation workers face — mostly due to language barriers — having access to a Catholic community that reaches out in their own language helps significantly, Garcia said.

“This work is so special. If they didn’t do this work, there would be a question of whether we could practise our religion. But we can have Mass, and prayer,” Garcia said. 

In Ontario, the archdiocese of London, which hosts the largest number of migrant workers, has a ministry office dedicated to helping them. And a grouping of three parishes in Newmarket, Ont., has also seen the need to reach out and hosted an annual barbecue for seasonal workers on the same day as the Oratory pilgrimage.

Jean Lashley, a parishioner of St. John Chrysostom in Newmarket, said they began reaching out to workers in the archdiocese of Toronto 10 years ago. Having heard about the Montreal pilgrimage, Lashley said the group is considering its own pilgrimage to Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont.

“I think what we are really trying to do is create a sense of community, that they can feel that they do belong here and give a voice to people who perhaps they don’t feel they have a voice in Mexico or Canada,” Lashley said. “And they’re far from families so it’s important that we provide a home here that they should feel there are people they can communicate with, people that care about them.”

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