Molly Pyle, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Editor’s note: With this article, The Catholic Virginian launches a series that offers readers glimpses into the diocese’s history via entertaining and enlightening vignettes focusing on important, though little-known, events. The articles will convey insights of interviewees as they reflect on their experiences and the lore passed down to them.
Spread along the Eastern Shore, equidistant from one another, spanning Accomack and Northampton counties, lie the diocese’s three parishes. Respectively, from north to south, these are: St. Andrew (on Chincoteague Island), St. Peter, and St. Charles. Each parish sponsors a ministry serving thousands of migrant workers — and, in earlier years, their families — employed, seasonally, by nearby farms and food processing plants. Agribusiness comprises the core of the region’s economy.
One evening, in October 2017, at one of the area’s camps, St. Andrew pastor, Father Michael Imperial, St. Peter parishioners, Kathy Bredimus, Shirley Hirsch and Angelica Zuniga, and some 15 migrant workers gathered for conversation. The atmosphere was comfortable, easy-going, gracious and welcoming, and with a familiarity that included sharing of photographs from home.
But as the conversation proceeded, the men’s restlessness and frustration became apparent. The season would end in a few weeks, and it had been a slow week, with only two days of paid work.
History of serving migrant community
The assembled men’s circumstances resembled in some ways experiences of European men who immigrated in earlier centuries to work in Virginia. Many immigrant workers were unskilled and lived in harsh conditions, without their families. They were grateful for a visit and the sacraments offered by their itinerant diocesan priest.
Then, as on that October evening, such visits entailed considerable effort to organize and execute. Perhaps for that reason, the occasion brought joy and rejoicing that was mutual and genuine.
However, in other ways, the 2017 gathering reflected a relatively new phenomenon in the Catholic Church: a worship community associated with local parishes convening seasonally. Priest and parishioners have collaborated in performing the sacramental and pastoral functions, as well as various rituals that structure the life of the community.
Mass has been celebrated at different camps at different times on any given Sunday. Annual festivities have marked the end of the season: a soccer match, Mass, a procession under an Our Lady of Guadalupe statue, and lunch, prepared by parishioners.
This ministry has given its participants an opportunity to encounter the Lord in the sacraments and in one another. Father Imperial, a native of the Philippines, has encouraged parishioners to discover joy and love in their ministry with the migrant workers. Franciscans in his native country taught him the special blessing of serving and loving the less fortunate.
Migrants work under difficult conditions. The Eastern Shore’s agriculture is not mechanized: tomatoes and cucumbers must be hand-harvested, for example. Men willing to perform such work are scarce in Virginia.
Pastor experienced parishioners’ work
Parish “missionaries” have met the migrants where they live and work — in camps or, pending farm managers’ authorizations, in hot vegetable fields or dusty chicken plants. Father Dan Kelly, now retired in Clifton Forge, pastor at St. Peter 1987-1999, recalled this experience of “hanging chickens.”
“One of my parishioners, a plant manager at Perdue, allowed me to enter his plant and work for a day alongside my parishioners — a diverse group of Haitians, Latinos, and local Virginians,” he said. “One of my assigned tasks was to remove chickens from crates, two at a time, by their feet, with claws already bound, and hang the chicken from their feet on hooks running along a conveyor belt.”
Father Kelly noted that, despite being given protective goggles, workers had to endure “terrible dust.” Many, he said, endured the dust because behind goggles, they couldn’t see.
Learning, addressing needs
Diocesan priests have been resourceful in meeting workers’ various pastoral and sacramental needs. Initial efforts focused on understanding their needs.
In the 1970s, Father Ricardo Seidel, a native of Peru, born of German immigrants, traveled across Virginia serving migrants working on tobacco farms, orchards and vegetable farms in southern, central and eastern counties. As the ministry developed, mastering the migrants’ languages became a requirement for the ministry’s priests.
Beginning in the 1990s, the diocese prepared lay people to serve as ministers. Jim Albright, a Spanish-speaker, was the first lay coordinator of the diocese’s migrant ministries on the Eastern Shore and around Danville. He organized the ministry’s main services, supporting Spanish-speaking seminarians recruited from Florida dioceses.
During the 1990s, Albright and the seminarians provided indispensable assistance to migrant workers seeking political asylum in the United States in the aftermath of decade-long civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Around 2001, Kathy Bredimus and Shirley Hirsch succeeded Albright as ministry coordinators. They invited other parishes to participate — most particularly young people — from Norfolk and Portsmouth and as far as Roanoke. In recent years, Spanish-speaking parishioners, such as Zuniga, who teaches catechism to migrants and helps with local transportation, have brought resources both to their parishes and to this ministry.
This ministry has transformed the lives of workers and parishioners. At the October gathering, one man recounted that 2017 had been an especially difficult year to be separated from his family.
In September, two earthquakes hit in the vicinity of his home in Central Mexico. His family survived, but many homes were destroyed, and recovery has been slow. The assurance that Father Imperial and St. Peter Parish have been praying for him and his family has given him peace and hope amidst much hardship, he said.
Faith formation and celebration
Eastern Shore priests and parishioners have also put considerable effort into dispensing the Church’s sacraments. In 2013, Father Imperial discovered that migrant families arriving in the area after periods in Florida and Georgia had not been given the opportunity to be baptized and confirmed.
Workers were told that there wasn’t sufficient time during their temporary employment to “properly prepare” them. Parish formation programs are generally offered over the course of a year.
The late Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo enabled Father Imperial to collaborate with the diocesan chancery and develop a condensed adult formation course so that by season’s end, migrants, guided in the Church’s teachings, would be prepared to receive communion.
Perhaps because of the difficulties families have encountered gaining access to sacraments, the celebration of baptisms and confirmations is a joyous and festive occasion. In past years, workers’ families have decorated the camps, placing white balloons — signifying purity and newness — in trees.
Parishes collaborate with the camps to procure tents, tables and chairs. Around the barracks, families have grilled food for parish visitors.
Some parishioners have struggled to overcome certain barriers, including language, to bond with individuals from different backgrounds. To that end, through migrant ministry, Spanish-speakers have discovered an opportunity to share in the work of the parish.
They have conducted catechesis for migrant families and have contributed to their adoptive parishes’ hospitality. In turn, their fellow parishioners have responded warmly. St. Peter Parish has united around various shared goals, most particularly the building of a new church — dedicated in December 2017.