How a monthly church service is helping Ontario migrant workers stay connected to their faith

A monthly mass in Forest, Ont. is an opportunity for migrant workers to keep up with traditions while away from home, says the London Catholic Diocese.

Deacon Tony Hogervorst says there are about 1200 workers in the area served by the London Catholic Diocese

Luis Blanchet is from Mexico but lives for about half the year in Ontario. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Once a month, Luis Blanchet drives from the apiary where he works in Alvinston, Ont. to St. Christopher's Church in Forest, Ont. to attend a Spanish-language mass. 

Blanchet is in Alvinston for the summer season, but his home is in Baja California, Mexico, where his wife and five children live year-round. He's a migrant worker and spends about half the year in Canada to make money to send back home, where work is more difficult to come by.

"It's not easy to leave a family for seven months; it's difficult, but we need the money," said Blanchet.

The mass is intended to make things a little bit easier. It's put on by the London Catholic Diocese, which also offers services for migrant workers in Leamington, Chatham and Waterford.

Tony Hogervorst is a deacon with the London Catholic Diocese and owns a farm that employs migrant workers. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Deacon Tony Hogervorst, who works as a migrant worker ministry specialist with the Diocese, estimates that there are about 1200 migrant workers in the area from Simcoe to Windsor to Goderich. Many of them, he said, come from Mexico, are baptized Catholic and are used to going to mass at home.

"As Christians we're supposed to do what we can to welcome our neighbours when they come... and so this ministry is meant to help them to maintain their spiritual life while they're here," said Hogervorst. 

Mass is also a social opportunity for workers, who typically spend six-and-a-half days a week working, Hogervorst said.

"I feel really good because we can talk with lots of people, lots of Mexican guys, it's good for us," said Blanchet.

Samuel Ramirez says attending church once a month helps lift his spirits, and feel less lonely.

Samuel Virgen Ramirez agrees. He works at a nursery in Wyoming, Ont. and, like Blanchet, left his wife and children home in Mexico.

"[Church] is very important, because I feel good, and if I feel good I'm not going to think a lot about my family and I can work here better," he said. 

Beyond his role with the London Catholic Diocese, Hogervorst also has a personal connection to the ministry. Hogervorst owns a farm in Watford, Ont. and has relied on migrant workers for the past 30 years to harvest squash and cabbage. 

"It's a marriage of a need for labourers who are willing to do what is considered hard work, and from their side their countries depend on repatriated income," Hogervorst said. "And these fellows take their money home and they make a difference in their town when they spend it."

Hogervorst says there are a number of migrant workers who aren't being served by the London Catholic Diocese, and that he hopes to continue expanding the ministry. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

In the future, Ramirez plans to continue returning to Canada for the next few years, and wants to save up to buy land in Mexico and grow sugar cane. Blanchet hopes to get his citizenship, and move his family to Canada permanently. He has a lead on a longer-term job at a local farm.

For his part, Hogervorst wants to expand the ministry to areas of the southwest that aren't yet being served. 

"There are workers out there who would benefit from having an opportunity to express their faith similar to the custom they have at home, and so we're doing our best to build that ministry around the diocese," he said.