By Monsignor Michael Flannery
MADISON – There is a Spanish phrase “que pasa?” (what’s happening?). In a way, it sums up the pastoral visit Bishop Joseph Kopacz and I made to the Saltillo Mission March 30 -April 3.
We can report that the good work begun by Father Patrick Quinn in 1969 is flourishing south of the border. There are two Mexican priests serving at the mission, Fathers David and Elevio. Both have a profound missionary spirit and they follow in the footsteps of Father Quinn.
We flew into Monterrey, Mexico, on Thursday, March 30. Father David was there to greet us and bring us to the mission about two hours away. He had a full schedule prepared for us. Our first visit was to the church of Cristo Rey (in the city of Saltillo) at 6:00 p.m. It is one of four churches in town served by San Miguel. The other three are; the Holy Martyrs, St. William and Christ the King. We visited other churches in the city the next day.
Saturday we set out for the village Jalapa where the villagers gathered to greet the Bishop from Mississippi. After a prayer service with the rancheros and the distribution of bags of cornmeal we set out for the village of Animas where we shared another meal with the villagers. At 2:00 p.m. we were on the road again to our most distant village of El Tapon, five hours away. There we greeted the people and Bishop Kopacz was asked to bless the seeds of corn and pinto beans to be used for sowing. Also, he was asked to bless the two goat herds. Many coyotes attack and kill the young kid goats and the blessing of the bishop was to provide protection.
After the blessing, Bishop Kopacz was offered a kid goat as a gift. I explained to the kind lady making the offer we would only be in the country five days and were forbidden to bring a goat back with us to the U.S. Instead she offered Bishop Kopacz a package of tortillas which he graciously accepted.
The next morning we went to the village of Garambullo, where we were greeted by a presentation of Aztec dancing before Mass. Father David showed us the new tin roof he had put on the church. Many of the churches in the mountain villages are in bad need of repair. An average roof on a mountain village church costs about $3,000. I had brought a suitcase full of T-shirts, a gift from Madison St. Anthony School. It was amazing to see the joy in these childrens faces as they received them. I also had brought with me 500 ball-point pens which I selectively distributed to other children telling them the pen was a gift of Bishop Kopacz.
When we arrived at La Ventura about 500 villagers were completing a live way of the cross. It was a very moving site. Because of their Mexican heritage and culture, the people relate very well to the suffering Christ. Bishop Kopacz was again front and center celebrating Mass and administering the sacrament of Confirmation.
After Mass, we had a delicious lunch with the villagers. Father David showed Bishop Kopacz a building attached to the church, consisting of two rooms, where it would be possible to house catechists who spend weekends training village catechists and performing missions throughout the year. He had plans to add another floor to the existing two rooms as La Ventura was a central village from where 6 other villages could be served.
It was now time to head back to Saltillo for dinner with the Bishop of Saltillo Don Raul Vera. Bishop Vera was very gracious and Bishop Kopacz shared with him his Pastoral Priorities and Vision for the Diocese of Jackson. The following morning, we shared a light breakfast with Father David and Father Evelio. Both priests are great visionaries and are addressing the needs of the people. Another example of their thinking outside the box, is a project now in its infancy.
San Miguel has become home to four students coming from mountain villages who cannot afford room and board while studying at the university. In exchange for room and board they accompany the priests during the weekend in their ministry in the ranchos. This project costs approximately $2,500 per student, however, that is where the church needs to be offering its services to those in need and changing the lives of people for the better.
Another worthy program at San Miguel is the catechetical program. Young catechists are brought in from remote villages to stay at San Miguel for a week or two during the summer. The rancheros are very moved by this experience. For the first time in their lives they have meals served to them by someone else. Also, they have the experience of taking a shower. That is not an option in the ranchos. It is a different world there at San Miguel.
I would like to end with one quick story. There was one four-year-old girl in Saltillo who got my last St. Anthony T-shirt. She was so excited with her new found treasure she would not take it off. The T-shirt would have fit a child of 12. It was so long it came down to her ankles. Her mother told me later that she would not take it off even to go to bed and she used it as her night gown. I also gave her the St. Anthony golf cap I was wearing. She even wore it to bed she was so overcome with joy with her gift. I can assure you that the people of Saltillo are most appreciative of all that Mississippians do for them and they wanted us to express their gratitude to you.
(Editor’s note: Msgr. Flannery is working on a book detailing the history of the Saltillo mission. a longer version of this story with details of all the rancho visits is available online at www.mississippicatholic.com)