For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:35-36).
Pope Francis, in his message for the 2023 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, writes, “These words are a constant admonition to see in the migrant not simply a brother or sister in difficulty, but Christ himself, who knocks at our door.”
The Church has celebrated World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Sept. 24 this year, since 1914. It’s an occasion to express concern for, and solidarity with, different vulnerable people on the move, to pray for them as they face many challenges and to increase awareness about the opportunities that migration offers.
The day is observed on the last Sunday of September. As the title for his annual message, the Holy Father has selected “Free to choose whether to migrate or to stay.”
Many parishioners within the Diocese of Norwich have been faced with that choice. Those who have come to the diocese to live, work and worship have found not only a warm and spiritual welcome, but a network of social services, aid and most importantly, people on which they can rely.
“With Catholic Charities and the Hispanic Ministry leading the way, we are working hard to provide assistance and education to families living in fear,” Bishop Cote said in April 2017. “Many families are in crisis mode and need to know the Church is there for them — there to help them navigate the complexities of local, state and federal regulations.”
The Office of Hispanic Ministry’s support and advocacy for Hispanic immigrants is rooted in the Gospel and in the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching. It serves the Catholic Hispanic communities in Clinton, Middletown, New London, Norwich and Windham.
“When we began in ministry, in the 1980s in Willimantic it was predominantly Puerto Rican,” Sr. Mary Jude Lazarus, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry, said.
Sr. Mary Jude and Fr. Robert Washabaugh, pastor of St. Mary Church in Norwich, both joke that they’ve been around long enough to witness most of the changes in the area’s population, and the diverse flow of cultures and customs that each new group contributes.
She credits Fr. Washabaugh with helping to establish the Sagrado Corazon Church in Windham, at a time when immigrant populations had outgrown the space at St. Joseph Church. It became “the Puerto Rican church” for a very long time, she said. That then gave way in the 1990s to others, including Mexican and Guatemalan arrivals.
“The Guatemalan community is very large in that area,” she said. It’s also common now to see Salvadoran, Colombian, Honduran, Ecuadorian and Peruvian worshipers.
“Name the country and there’s somebody from there,” Fr. Washabaugh said.
Needs of the community are abundant and often different from the mainstream.
“Needs for housing, needs for jobs,” Sr. Mary Jude said. “The concept of ministry is so much wider than preaching the Gospel. The Gospel is preached in many ways, more than just from the pulpit. It’s preached in all the social responses to their needs.”
The office is a resource to all parishes such as St. Mary, as they help immigrants navigate issues such as residency, health and childcare, food security and work status.
“The bottom line is always about strengthening the faith of the people, in their own language and culture,” Sr. Mary Jude said.
A church of immigrants needs some care
St. Mary Church, on Central Avenue in Norwich, is the second oldest parish in the Diocese of Norwich, and the oldest in the diocese east of the Connecticut River.
The church building is 100 years old, but the parish dates to 1845. Irish, Italians, Poles and others have at various times formed the heart of the parish, each contributing in their own way. Cape Verdeans came in the 1920s and 30s. The 90 year-old St. Anthony Chapel celebrates the presence of Portuguese-speakers from Cape Verde. In the 1980s and 90s, waves of immigrants from Latin America and Haiti arrived.
Today, 400 families, most of them born in other countries, fill St. Mary’s handsome Gothic revival building that stands as a reminder that the Catholic Church cares for immigrants. Sunday Masses are in Spanish and Haitian Creole with a bilingual Sunday vigil Mass (in English and Spanish).
“It’s to me a very refreshing thing to work with people who are coming from a different historical experience and culture,” Fr. Washabaugh said. “It’s a different feel and a different embrace of the Church.”
In April of 2022, examination of the front façade and church tower at St. Mary revealed instability in the stonework so dangerous that closing the parish and demolishing the building seemed likely.
But the people of St. Mary and Bishop Cote share the same conviction: It is a landmark institution which must be kept at the service of Norwich’s new arrivals, many of whom are Catholic. They are pouring themselves into repairs through pledging, fundraising projects, raffles and neighborhood appeals.
“There is still a great deal to do to repair the church: the front facade, accessibility issues, efficient heating, windows,” Fr. Washabaugh said.
Contributions to St. Mary’s Restoration Fund are gratefully accepted at jnccfaith.org
By Ryan Blessing