By Msgr. Michael Flannery
Bishop Joseph Kopacz and I went to visit the Saltillo Mission over the Thanksgiving holidays. Bishop Kopacz was fulfilling a promise he made to Father Benjamin Piovan, the pastor of San Miguel Mission who passed away last August and was buried in La Place, Louisiana. It was the first visit of the bishop to our mission south of the border. He did not know what to expect. He asked me to accompany him on the visit since I had been assigned to the Saltillo Mission from 1971 to 1974. I had kept in touch with the mission over the years and had returned to visit it more than 30 times.
We left Jackson on Thanksgiving day and we spent five wonderful days at San Miguel. During our time there we visited the seven churches within the city of Saltillo which are part of the mission. We visited two ranchos or villages. The villages assigned to Bishop Kopacz to visit were La Rosa (The Rose) and Sabanilla (The Little Cloth). La Rosa was one hour and a half from Saltillo. It had a paved road all the way. Sabanilla was 45 minutes by highway and two hours and fifteen minutes off the highway on a dirt road. We traveled in a wagon each time.
Friday was spent getting to know the senior citizens of San Miguel. We had a delightful meal with them. In Mexico, old age is not regarded as being a cross but rather a blessing. The elderly are revered and put on a pedestal as being wise and knowledgeable. That afternoon we spent at St. William’s Church and enjoyed a presentation on the birth of the Lord.
The first thing on the agenda for Saturday morning was the blessing of a catechetical center at Maria Auxiliadora. The children of Madison St. Anthony School built two catechetical class rooms as a Lenten project last year. The cost of the project was $4,000. The children of St. Anthony sacrificed for the entire Lenten Season to make it a reality. For the blessing of the catechetical center Bishop Kopacz was joined by the Bishop Emeritus Francisco Villalobos.
The highlight for me was the visit to La Rosa on Saturday. It was a village where I served more than 40 years ago. Father David Martinez, the present acting pastor of San Miguel, had arranged for members of five other villages to congregate there. They were all villages I had served in and most of the elderly people knew me. It was like a homecoming.
For Bishop Kopacz, the highlight was the visit to Sabanilla (one of the ranchos) on Sunday morning. We were met by the villagers on the dirt road about a mile from the village requesting that we process from there by foot. They wrapped a Mexican flag around Bishop Kopacz’s shoulders and told him he was now truly Mexican. We processed singing: “Juntos como hermanos, miembros de una iglesia, vamos caminando al templo del Señor.” (Together as brothers and sisters, members of one church, we go together walking, to the temple of the Lord.)
The bishop was duly impressed by the faith of the people. He remarked to me that this is what the gospel is all about. He recalled the life of Pope Francis who, as cardinal of Buenos Aires, went with regularity by bus to a giant slum, in the district of Baracas known as “21-24.” Pope Francis challenges all of us to a new evangelization and to have a sensitivity for the poor of the world. The Lord looked after all the poor, the lonely, the crippled, blind and lame. No one was excluded from his ministry.
Another highlight for Bishop Kopacz was the visit to Perpetual Help Church and the tomb of Father Patrick Quinn, the founder of the mission. He remarked: “We should make every effort to keep alive the vision of Father Quinn.”
For Bishop Kopacz ‘seeing is believing’. Every place we went the people spoke with enthusiasm of the ministry of Father Quinn and his dedication to the poor of the ranchos. We stood in Father Quinn’s bedroom, which was his home for 30 years. We knew we were standing on holy ground.
The final night of our visit to Saltillo, we were invited to participate in a new project in honor of the memory of Father Quinn. A friend of the founding pastor had donated a strip of land within the city of Saltillo measuring 24 acres in size. It is most unusual to find a strip of property that size within city limits. The Bishop of Saltillo, Don Raul Vera joined us for the blessing of the corner stone of the project to be called Divine Mercy. It will contain a church in the round capable of seating 500 people, a home for unwed mothers and a dormitory for students from the ranchos who wish to pursue a university education but cannot afford to pay rent while attending classes. The compound has other possibilities for future growth.
After the ceremony we shared a delightful meal with Bishop Raul Vera, Bishop Kopacz, Father David Martinez, acting pastor, Father Evelio Casarrubias associate pastor of San Miguel and myself. At 10 p.m. we adjourned to pack our bags in preparation for our return journey to Jackson.
Every place Bishop Kopacz went everyone wanted a personal photo with him. As a result the photo op took approximately 30 minutes at each visit. In conclusion we both felt that the faith is alive and strong at San Miguel Mission. We agreed with Bishop Raul Vera that the continuance of the financial support was good so that the vision of Father Quinn would continue long into the future.
The Diocese of Jackson has a special collection for Saltillo scheduled for Jan. 10 and 11, 2015.
(Msgr. Flannery is the pastor of Madison St. Francis of Assisi Parish. Read Bishop Joseph Kopacz’s reflection on the journey on page 3.)