Saltillo, Mexico Our Lady
of Perpetual Help
Some addictions are life-giving. Consider the one which has Father Mike Flannery in its thrall. By his own admission, this tall, red-haired Irishman, judicial vicar of the Jackson diocese, is "addicted" to Saltillo, Mexico, and to the parishioners of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the parish there which is co-sponsored by the Diocese of Jackson and the Diocese of Biloxi. "
Saltillo just gets in your blood," says Father Flannery who served from 1971 through 1974 in this city founded in 1577. "I needed tobe deprogramed when I got home," he chuckles, remembering the culture shock of going from a parish of 45,000 to Rosedale, Miss., a parish of 45. Now, Father Flannery claims he returns to Mexico every year "to get a fix."
Priests are not the only ones to experience the lure of Saltillo. Young people who have made the trip with CYO groups long to return there. Montrel Cooper, the newly elected diocesan CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) president, thinks, "Every kid in Mississippi should have a chance to go to Saltillo."
Nicknamed "Refrigerator" by the Mexican children, Cooper claims, "It's worth the trip just to get to be around 'Padre' Quinn."
The Padre is Father Patrick Quinn, a native of County Galway, Ireland, and by now such a legend in the annals of Mississippi Catholicism that when people talk about him, they always resort to exaggeration. "A white-headed god," says Cooper, recalling when everyone else at the mission is exhausted, the Padre, who arises before daybreak, is still going strong.
Catholics from Mississippi and Mexico are not alone in their admiration for the handsome missionary with the shock of snow-white hair. In May 1986, 15 years after he was named pastor of the Saltillo parish, Father Quinn was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Loyola University in New Orleans.
In conferring the degree, Father James Carter, SJ, president of Loyola, found Father Quinn could not be described in ordinary language. "Old Testament Scriptures," he began, "recall another age when 'there were giants on the earth .... ' One of those giants still walks the earth, specifically in Saltillo, Mexico, in the guise of Father Patrick Quinn."
In the mid-summer of 1969, however, this giant of a man was full of gigantic uncertainties. He had just been appointed pastor of a Mexican parish the size of the state of Delaware with a Catholic population of 45,000, all Spanish-speaking, and he spoke no Spanish.
An idea in the '60s
It all started with an idea.
Calling Latin America "the world's largest mission field," Pope Pius XII began urging bishops in developed nations to come to the aid of the church in Latin America where nearly half of the world's Catholics were being served by 10 percent of the world's priests.
Politics and poverty had created this priest vacuum. Vocations, by and large, come out of the middle class. Latin America, with its small middle class produced almost no vocations. Millions of Latin Americans never saw a priest; millions more waited years to receive the sacraments.
Pope John XXIII and, later, Pope Paul VI continued urging the bishops of the world to become involved in Latin America.
In the summer of 1967, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Brunini, who was administrator of the diocese and the other hero of this tale, and Father Bernard Law, president of the Priests' Senate, mailed questionnaires to the priests of Mississippi, asking if they would support a diocesan mission in Latin America. Over 80 percent of the Mississippi priests favored such a project.
When he was installed as the eighth bishop of the diocese, Bishop Brunini announced a Latin American mission would be a priority in his episcopacy. To the diocesan priests assembled at the ceremony at St. Peter in Jackson, he issued an invitation for volunteers.
Why did Father Quinn apply for the job?
"I had voted in favor of the mission," he explains. "It didn't seem right to vote for it without volunteering for the job."
In October 1968, Bishop Brunini and the newly organized personnel board, a Vatican II innovation, gave Father Quinn the twin tasks of selecting the mission site and of making arrangements for the diocese to staff it.
Saltillo was not the only place under consideration. Parishes in Panama and Guatemala had sent requests as well, but Father Quinn had Mississippi Catholics in his mind when he settled on Saltillo. The Mexican parish, only 1,000 miles from Mississippi, was by comparison close to home. The priest wanted Mississippi Catholics to have the opportunity of participating personally in the mission work.
"On Jan. 13, 1969," wrote Father Quinn on the mission's 10th anniversary, "I left St. Therese Parish in Jackson to begin preparations in Saltillo and its surrounding missions."
By many standards, Mississippi parishes, measured in miles rather than city blocks, are considered large. Our Lady of Perpetual Help, by contrast, is enormous.
Originally, it included the church and several "colonies" where Mass was celebrated in the city plus numerous villages, or "ranchos," dotted throughout the surrounding mountains. Caring for Perpetual Help would be a gigantic undertaking.
The original plans had called for the priest to spend his first six months in Mexico in preparation -learning Spanish, acquainting himself with the Mexican culture, and visiting the villages.
"It was a time of mistakes and blunders for me," confesses the missionary, but it was a time of confirmation as well. "Visiting the villages for the first time," he writes, "and watching the faces light up when I told them in broken Spanish that soon priests would visit them and say Mass for them these were the most moving experiences of my life."
However, three months into this preparation period, Father Quinn received an urgent call from Ireland. His father was seriously ill.
Immediately, the priest left for Ireland.
Father Quinn made pastor
Three weeks later, when he returned to Mexico, he found a letter awaiting him. Bishop Luiz Guizar, Bishop of Saltillo, had appointed him pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
"This is ridiculous," Father Quinn remembers thinking. "I haven't yet preached a sermon in Spanish. I won't understand the problems of the people." When he went to Bishop Guizar with his questions and his reservations, he was met with other questions and with what has turned out to be very sound advice.
"Father," began the old Mexican bishop, "do you think St. Paul knew the language and the dialects of the people he preached to? Do you think St. Francis Xavier knew the language of the Japanese when he converted them? Above all, do you think St. Patrick knew the language and dialects of the Irish people when he converted them?"
The Irishman must have shook his head at each question because the wise old man continued, "The greatest conversions in history were made by people not fluent in the languages in which they preached."
Father Quinn knew Bishop Guizar's history. Twice, during the 1930s persecution of the Mexican church, he had been condemned to death, and twice the firing squads had allowed him to escape. Father Quinn believed he was in the presence of a saint.
"People don't listen to words," said the bishop. "They listen to a person. Go ahead and take that parish, Father. Let Christ work through you."
The rest of the story is about what happens when a person follows that last bit of advice.
On June 27, 1969, when Father Quinn accepted the job as pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Saltillo, Mexico, Mississippi Catholics entered a new era in their history as a people.
Within that first week, Father Patrick Murray arrived in Saltillo to begin work as the mission's first assistant pastor.
By early September, the two priests had witnessed 16 weddings, baptized over 50 babies, prepared 125 children for First Communion, and were learning the virtue of patience.
The Mexican bureaucracy moves slowly, particularly when the church is involved. The special permit for the mission pick-up truck had not arrived, but that delay had not kept the two priests away from the ranchos, several of them six hours away from Saltillo.
In one of the ranchos, a tiny chapel was already going up. The cost of the building supplies had been donated by a Jackson Catholic, but the villagers were doing the work themselves. It was a pattern of partnership between Mexican and Mississippi Catholics that would repeat itself again and again in the years to come.
In Saltillo, plans were being laid by two groups to build small churches at two ofthe "colonies." And construction on the rectory had begun at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but it was slow going.
"'Manana' doesn't mean tomorrow," wrote Father Murray to Bishop Brunini, "or the next day or the next .... But if you have patience, they will do a good job."
Father Murray remained at Perpetual Help from 1969 through 1973, helping to organize the village ministry and "Saltillo Summer," a three-week long missionary experience for older Mississippi teenagers in which, 18 years later, over 8,000 young people have participated.
Father Flannery arrived in Saltillo in 1971. Among his lasting contributions there was the establishment of the catechetical program.
But in order to understand that program, one must know something about the population of the Mexican church.
Faith of young adults
According to Father Flannery, the most striking thing about the church in Mexico is the faith of the young adults. "When you go into an American church," says the priest, "and look around at the congregation, you have to ask yourself 'where are the 18-to-24-year-olds? ' "
In contrast, he explains, "the young adults in Mexico not only make up the largest part of the membership, they are the powerhouse."
The catechists come from this population. Under Father Flannery's leadership, 100 catechists were trained as religious education teachers. They organized themselves into choirs. They took on the responsibility of teaching religion to the elementary children in the city itself, and they began accompanying the priests on their dusty journeys to the ranchos where they assisted at Liturgies, sang, entertained and taught the village children.
Today, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, over 300 catechists carry on thIS vital ministry.
By the end of the 1970s, Father Michael Thornton, who served from 1973 through 1977, had developed the mission's medical program.
Father Louis Lohan, who served from 1974 through 1978, had initiated and organized the parish youth program, and Father Paul Madden the parish choirs.
"The '70s have been times of trial and error, success and failure for us," wrote Father Quinn in the Jan. 30, 1981, edition of Mississippi Today. "However, thank God many fruits appear."
The accomplishments during the first 10 years were impressive. In the villages, 38 simple mission churches had been built. Within the city of Saltillo, a convent and medical offices had gone up.
At four sites around the city, community centers, each complete with church, recreation center and assembly hall, had been built.
Fifty solid one-room houses had been constructed for families who had formerly lived in huts.
And untold tons of beans had been distributed to the poor.
Spiritual needs had been met as well. Each year the mission priests had witnessed over 250 weddings. Each year over 1,200 babies had been baptized. Each year 1,200 children had received First Communion. Each year another 1,200 were confirmed.
People who had attended Mass only rarely had been given the opportunity of receiving the Eucharist at least once a month.
Like Mexico, Mississippi is mission territory, still being served in large part by missionaries from Europe. Yet in the matter of a mission to Latin America, the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson set an example for Catholics in other states.
After Father Quinn came to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Archdiocese of New Orleans established a boys' home in Saltillo. And when the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, decided to support a Latin American mission, its bishop announced, "If Mississippi with so few Catholics can do it, we can too."
By the end of that first decade, the number of catechists had risen from 10 to 300. The number of seminarians had increased from zero to six. Originally, only five sisters were working at the mission. By 1980, there were 13.
Saltillo had become a household word in Catholic homes across Mississippi. The CYOers worked hard to support their favorite charity.
Nurses, doctors and dentists had established the tradition of taking working vacations in Saltillo. Other Mississippi Catholics launched clothing drives for the mission, and Ralph Bandy, a retiree from Gautier, Miss., had begun his ministry to Saltillo.
He bought a used Greyhound bus which he renovated into a mobile home. Several times a year in the bus loaded to capacity with clothing and medical supplies, Ralph Bandy continues to make trips to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Who are poor?
Father Quinn, on his annual trips home to make mission appeals, was teaching Mississippi Catholics lessons in global awareness when he preached on "Who are the poor?"
The poor are not fat, healthy men, sitting around drunk and lazy, on welfare. They are children with swollen stomachs full of worms.
They are the sick, the aged, the crippled.
They are old men and women suffering horrible, painful mouth infections from gums that have grown over old roots after the teeth have rotted away.
They are people crowded into one-room adobe huts, sleeping sitting upon damp clay floors because there are no beds and not enougA room to lie down.
They are broken-hearted parents listening to and unable to satisfy their children crying from hunger pains.
Poverty for the most part is invisible. Relatively few have shriveled up bodies or beg from tourists. Most suffer for years in quiet obscurity. They get sick often. Death when it comes seldom comes as an undisguised case of starvation. Usually it takes the more merciful form of measles, diarrhea, or some ordinary sickness.
It is expensive to be poor. Most of the poor live in isolated rural areas. Ordinary groceries are from 30 percent to 50 percent more expensive for them because of the cost of transportation. Having no refrigerators, they have to buy daily in small quantities which is the most expensive way to buy. They never have enough money to buy in large enough quantities to get a discount.
In emergencies when they have to borrow money they are often charged outlandish and very unjust interest rates. I know a man who borrowed 200 pesos to pay for the coffin of his dead mother. He gave the papers of his poor adobe house as collateral. Three years later to recover these papers he had to pay 800 pesos.
Who are the poor.p They are my brothers, and there go I but for the grace of God.
Perhaps one incident will illustrate Padre Quinn's solidarity with the poor.
An emergency in 1973
One night in 1973, while returning to Saltillo from a rancho, the priest in the Bronco hit a very large truck. The accident was terrible. The driver of the other truck was bleeding and unconscious. Father Quinn, crushed beneath the steering wheel, suffered fractured ribs, a crushed pelvis, a broken knee cap and heel.
"Emergency knows no law," shrugs Father Flannery when he recalls how he assisted a young Mexican intern in picking glass fragments out of the pastor's knee in the emergency room late that night.
A few days afterward, while Father Quinn was recuperating in the Saltillo hospital, his condition began to deteriorate. His worried assistant called doctor friends on the Gulf Coast who flew down to Saltillo in an ambulance plane prepared to take Father Quinn home.
"He refused to go," said Father Flannery. "He had thrown in his lot with the poor, and he wanted nothing they could not have." So strong was Father Quinn's solidarity with the poor that it took an order from Bishop Brunini to get the stoic priest on a plane back to Mississippi where he recovered.
By 1984, the Saltillo parish had produced her first priest son, Feliciano Villa Nuevo. Within the next few years, Jesus Sanches ('86) and Herado Martinez ('88) would also be ordained.
The numbers of those receiving the sacraments increased so dramatically that in 1984 an addition was made to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church which doubled its size. The parish compound now covers an entire city block.
Churches in Saltillo under Perpetual Hel p Parish include Assumption (1969), St. Martin de Porres (1970), St. Maria Goretti (1974), Sacred Heart (1984), Our Lady of Guadalupe (1984), St. Alphonsus (1985), St. Patrick (1986), St. Peter and St. Paul (1988), St. Philip of Jesus (1988), St. Michael (1988), Divine Providence (1989), and St. Mary Magdalene (1989).
The retreat center where the catechists are trained also houses Cursillo and Marriage Encounter weekends. At the dormitory, 100 people can be bedded down for the night. There are two kitchens on the compound so various groups can use the facility without disrupting the parish functions.
Under the wing of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is the motherhouse of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Family and the Holy Spirit, founded by Sister Olivia Garcia who saw the need for catechists and pastoral ministers in Mexico.
Of the 13 churches in Saltillo which are satellites of Perpetual Help, none is more striking than St. Patrick. Designed in the shape of a shamrock with shamrock windows to commemorate the Ten Commandments, the church is a tribute to Padre Quinn.
The community St. Patrick serves grew up almost overnight in the wake of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City when thousands of refugees from the quake poured into the northern capitol.
The city of Saltillo has doubled its population since 1969, going from 200,000 to 400,000 in 18 years. But the hope held out by new industries which located there in the late '70s has not meant prosperity for most of the citizens.
Thirty-five percent of the people in Saltillo are either unemployed or underemployed. Life for them is austere. Within the limits of this industrial city there are shanty towns where entire families live in cardboard box shacks. There are places where 200 families depend upon one outdoor faucet for their water supply.
Out in the remote villages, living. conditions are even more austere. Co'rn, beans and wheat struggle to grow in the dusty, stony ground. Water is at a premium. A child's hold on life is tenuous.
Beans are meat for poor
In Mexico there is no social welfare system. Consequently, at Perpetual Help 125 tons of beans are given out on the first Monday of every month. During the month an additional 10 to 15 tons of beans are distributed.
As Father Quinn is quick to point out, "Beans take the place of meat for the poor."
The priests at Perpetual Help, Father Quinn and Father Patrick Mockler, who in 1986 organized the choirs in the villages and an apostolate of getting the men to church, visit villages every month. The people receive the sacraments. Medicines, beans and clothing are distributed with the help of the catechists and sometimes with the help of the groups from North America.
Among early medieval Christian communities there were scattered hospices where the stranger, the poor, the widow, the orphan could come to be served by the more fortunate. In those places hospitality was raised to the level of a virtue.
It is raised to that level at Perpetual Help. Guests are always there - retreat groups, CYO groups, the poor coming for beans, the children coming for lessons, the parishioners coming for Mass, the sick coming for medicine. Visitors from all parts of the United States and from overseas have begun to seek out Perpetual Help.
The hospitality they experience is Latin. The courtesy which so quickly humbles them is Latin, as well. But the one they've come to see is the Irishman who lets Christ work through him and who makes the word "church" not a noun but a verb.
(Mississippi Today, June 23, 1989)