By The Reverend Antonio Illas
The genesis of ministry with Spanish-speaking seasonal migrant farmworkers from Mexico in the Niagara region dates to Easter 1988. In January 1988, the Reverend Duncan Lyon, originally from England, became the rector of Christ Church McNab, established in 1847. After the joyous Easter service Duncan, still in his cassock, sat down to rest and to enjoy a drink in the rectory’s front porch, across the street from the church. In the kitchen his wife Wendy was busy preparing the family Easter turkey and vegetables meal.
Their son Matthew, then 13 years old, and also in the front porch said to Duncan, “Dad, there are several men in bikes going into the church.” Duncan stood up and went across the street to the church, as the men had entered the building, to meet them. He asked them if he could help them and offered Holy Communion. One of the Mexican men said, “Yes.”
Back in the rectory, after a long time, Wendy was concerned as to where Duncan had gone; her father, Cecil, said that he had gone to meet several men at the church. Wendy said, “I better do more vegetables!” as she deep in her heart knew. Duncan would invite the unknown men for dinner.
Meanwhile at Christ Church McNab, Duncan was celebrating a Eucharist for the migrant farmworkers in Latin. He always kept a Latin Missal. This is the first mass for migrant farmworkers in the Niagara region and in the Anglican Diocese of Niagara, that we know of. An amazing genesis in the diocese, an English priest celebrating a mass in Latin for the religious and spiritual welfare of a vulnerable Spanish speaking community in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
After the mass, Wendy and Duncan invited the migrant workers to join them at the rectory for dinner. They had to set up extra tables and chairs to accommodate them. After the delicious turkey and vegetables meal and plenty of Coca Cola to drink, which the Mexican workers enjoyed, Wendy offered them a dessert cake. Duncan, using his French language skills, used the word “gâteau” believing that the Spanish word would be similar. To everyone’s surprise the migrant workers were perplexed and opened their eyes wide because they thought a cat was being offered as dessert. “Gâteau” sounds very similar to “gato” in Spanish, which means cat. The Spanish word for cake is “pastel”—totally different!
Easter Sunday 1988 was the beginning of a journey for Duncan and Wendy, as well as Christ Church McNab and the Mexican migrant workers. During this pilgrimage Wendy became an advocate for better living conditions as she was “horrified at their living conditions.” At times, farmers told her to “stay out of the farm.” As a social justice ministry Wendy would cook arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) a favorite of the workers and delivered it to the farms. In conjunction with Christ Church McNab, a clothing bank, transportation to doctor’s appointments, use of telephone to call home, summer soccer games, and bikes were facilitated. Duncan, at a particular time, had to preach a memorable sermon on gifting so that the parish could understand the bikes were a gift to the Mexican workers for their use here and in Mexico if they chose to take them home when the season ended. Also, bike repairs and storage were facilitated at Christ Church McNab.
In 1989 the first trip of Duncan and Wendy to Mexico was made, starting a connection with the migrant workers’ families in Mexico, resulting in enduring friendships with Rufino, Juan, and José and their families. A total of three or four trips were made to Mexico.
The journey with migrant workers continued even after Duncan and Wendy departed Christ Church McNab in 1994, as farmworkers cycled periodically through Christ Church Niagara Falls ending about the year 2000.
Over a decade had passed when in 2013 a parish in the Anglican Diocese of Niagara, St. Alban’s Anglican Church Beamsville, initiated a ministry with Spanish speaking migran
t farmworkers from Mexico.
The seeds of the farmworkers ministry planted in the late 1980s continue growing tod
ay as the Migrant Farmworkers Project, a ministry of the Diocese hosted at three parishes: St. Alban’s Anglican Church Beamsville, St. John’s Anglican Church Jordan and Christ Church McNab (Niagara-on-the-Lake), where it all started.
For more information on the Migrant Farmworkers Project, visit migrantfarmworkers.ca
Source: Niagara Anglican Newspaper, November 29, 2021