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Catholic faith thrives in the migrant camps

VENICE, FL (The Florida Catholic) - Father Jose del Olmo arrived in late afternoon at the migrant camp in far eastern Manatee County near Myakka City. He makes the trip from St. Jude Parish in Sarasota every Sunday to minister to the families who live in this camp and seven others spread out in this remote, rural area.

MYAKKA CITY - Father Jose del Olmo, parochial vicar of St. Jude Parish in Sarasota, celebrates Mass in the fields of a migrant camp outside Myakka City in Manatee County. The Eucharistic celebration is held in a tool shed near the trailers where the migrant workers live.

MYAKKA CITY - Father Jose del Olmo, parochial vicar of St. Jude Parish in Sarasota, celebrates Mass in the fields of a migrant camp outside Myakka City in Manatee County. The Eucharistic celebration is held in a tool shed near the trailers where the migrant workers live.


The camps are miles from the nearest parish and most of the residents would not be able to attend Mass, so Father del Olmo brings the word of God to them. The priest understands the Hispanic culture and he speaks their language.

“It is phenomenal!” he said in Spanish of ministering to the migrant workers. “They are very humble people and they love God. They really appreciate that we are here.”

A small shed with a porch on the outskirts of the camp serves this small community as La Mission de la Virgen de Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission. Dec. 9, 2007, was a special Sunday for Mexican Catholics in the camp because they anticipated the Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico. A banner of the Virgin was hung as Father del Olmo and volunteer Ismael Baca unloaded the items needed for services.

“I want to serve God because he has been good to me’

A busy, faith-filled afternoon was planned, and there were already a number of adults and children there to greet them. In addition to celebrating Mass, scheduled services included religious education for about 20 children, a rosary and a baptism.

“Many of us wouldn’t be able to go to church if Father Jose didn’t come to us,” said one woman attending services. “People work long hours and it’s not easy to get away.”

Father del Olmo visited with the children while setting up a small table that served as the altar upon which the eucharistic bread and wine were placed.

The migrant camp consists of a number of weathered trailers, which are home to workers who harvest tomatoes and cucumbers grown in the surrounding fields.

The harvest is done, and on this Sunday afternoon, a tractor worked the dry land nearby so dust blew in with the breeze. Noisy farm trucks added to the dust as they drove by the camp. Undaunted by these conditions, Father del Olmo cheerfully raised his voice to be heard above the truck and tractor traffic. He has been celebrating Mass here for three years.

Baca happily visited with worshippers while handing out handmade, donated rosaries and missals. The volunteer makes the weekly trip from his home in Tampa to Sarasota to accompany Father del Olmo to the camp. “I want to serve God because he has been good to me,” he said in Spanish as the rosary was prayed.

‘Son Guadalupanos’

When the rosary was completed, it was time to welcome 6-month-old Edelfredo Sanchez Zepeda into the Catholic faith. The baby boy was dressed in a miniature white tuxedo, and his proud young parents in their Sunday best. Accompanied by Edelfredo’s padrinos, or godparents, they observed the solemn rite of baptism in the company of their small Catholic community.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” said Father del Olmo in Spanish as he poured water on the baby’s head three times. A plastic water bowl was used for the baptism and the baby received the sacrament outdoors in the soft light of the setting sun.

As the afternoon wore on, more and more migrant workers and their families arrived. By the time Mass began at sunset, there were close to 100 men, women and children gathered around the mission. Some sat in plastic chairs while others stood as Father del Olmo celebrated Mass in Spanish.

He spoke of their special connection to Our Lady of Guadalupe because many of the Catholics in this community are Mexicans or of Mexican descent.

“Son Guadalupanos,” he reminded them.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the much-revered patroness of Mexico. More than 400 years ago, Mary appeared to Juan Diego, a poor Indian near Mexico City. She appeared as a dark-skinned, brown-eyed, black-haired Indian mother, and she spoke to Juan Diego in his own language, the language of the powerless, disenfranchised and despised Indians. “La Morenita” — the “Brown One,” as she is known — had a message for the local bishop that God’s church should be built out on the fringes of society, amid the poor and the downtrodden.

Faith in the fields of harvest

The Mass celebrated in the open air surrounded by fields was not without music. Prior to Mass, a pickup carrying an old amplifier and speakers in the cab was backed up to the shed so that the equipment could be plugged in to the power outlet in the mission. The driver and his passenger quickly set up microphones, pulled out a guitar and began singing Spanish hymns. They were soon joined by other choir members.

In addition to ministering to this remote Catholic community, Father del Olmo brings news of the diocese and the Vatican. He shared the exciting news of the upcoming visit to the United States by “El Papa” Pope Benedict XI.

Night had fallen by the time Mass was finished and the blessing was given.

Christmas lights twinkling on some trailers were visible as visitors looked back across the dark fields on the drive away from the mission. They illuminated a migrant camp where a small but vibrant Catholic community was planning another celebration in two days. They would sing Las Mananitas, the traditional early morning serenade for Our Lady of Guadalupe, on her feast day.

(Adela Gonzales White is communications director for the Diocese of Venice.)

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Florida Catholic (www.thefloridacatholic.org), official newspaper of the dioceses of Orlando, Venice, St. Petersburg, Palm Beach and Pensacola-Tallahassee, and the Archdiocese of Miami.

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