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After death of migrant farmworker, bishops show solidarity at memorial Mass

Father Scott Connolly celebrated Mass at a makeshift camp Aug. 8 in Sumas. After a fellow migrant farmworker's death, 70 workers protested their working conditions and were fired. They were kicked off the property, and a Sumas couple who live nearby are allowing the men to camp on their property. Photo: Stephen Brashear Father Scott Connolly celebrated Mass at a makeshift camp Aug. 8 in Sumas. After a fellow migrant farmworker's death, 70 workers protested their working conditions and were fired. They were kicked off the property, and a Sumas couple who live nearby are allowing the men to camp on their property. Photo: Stephen Brashear

BELLINGHAM – Somber-faced migrant farmworkers attended an Aug. 14 Mass, celebrated by the Archdiocese of Seattle’s three bishops, to remember a colleague who became ill while picking blueberries and died after seeking medical attention.

bishops leave Mass
Seattle Auxiliary Bishops Daniel Mueggenborg and Elizondo and Archbishop J. Peter Sartain leave Assumption Church during the recessional of the Aug. 14 Memorial Mass for Honesto Silva-Ibarra. Photo: Rex Yabut

“We are very much suffering with this terrible tragedy with the death of Honesto [Silva-Ibarra],” Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo said afterward, highlighting his homily given in Spanish during the Mass at the Church of the Assumption in Bellingham. The bishop said he reflected on the plight of the farmworkers and of Ibarra’s wife and young children back home in Mexico.

About 350 people attended the Sunday afternoon Mass, celebrated by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and concelebrated by Auxiliary Bishops Daniel Mueggenborg and Elizondo, and Father Scott Connolly, pastor at Assumption. Ibarra’s body will be returned to Mexico the week of Aug. 14 for burial, Father Connolly said.

The Mass showed solidarity with the farmworkers grieving the death of the 28-year-old Ibarra, who complained of headaches while working at a berry farm in Sumas (adjacent to the Canadian border), before being taken to a medical clinic in Bellingham. He died Aug. 6 at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Ibarra came to the U.S. for seasonal agricultural jobs through the H-2A visa program. After Ibarra’s death, about 70 workers protested their working conditions and were fired. They were kicked off the property, and a Sumas couple who live nearby are allowing the men to camp on their property.

Father Connolly said he was asked by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington to visit that camp and assess the situation. The workers said they were forced to leave many of their belongings behind. Several workers were experiencing “serious medical issues,” Father Connolly said.

Father Connolly celebrated Mass at the camp Aug. 8 with Father Francisco Cancino, priest administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Lynden.

Mass at makeshift campFather Scott Connolly celebrated Mass at a makeshift migrant farmworker camp Aug. 8 with Father Francisco Cancino, priest administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Lynden. Photo: Stephen Brashear

The archdiocese’s Missions Office gave Assumption Parish a $1,000 emergency grant from the Rice Bowl program, to provide meals and food supplies for the farmworkers, according to assistant director Kelly Hickman. The archdiocese’s Pastoral Care Office provided another $1,000 for general support of the migrant community, director Joe Cotton said in an email.

“It was important to express the archdiocese’s care and concern for a vulnerable community,” Cotton said. “It was important to care for their immediate needs, just as Matthew 25 mandates.”

carrying in cross at memorial Mass
An Aug. 14 memorial Mass celebrated by the Archdiocese of Seattle’s three bishops remembered Honesto Silva-Ibarra, who became ill while picking blueberries and died after seeking medical attention. Photo: Mary Louise Van Dyke

In addition, Catholic Community Services is supporting the work of Community to Community Development, Patricia Repikoff, CCS pastoral advocate for mission, said in an email. CCS has donated $5,000 to the organization to help the displaced farmworkers, and is collecting needed items and cash donations, said Andrea Cunningham, operations and missions coordinator for CCS Northwest. Donations can be made directly to CCS through its website or mailed to: Whatcom Family Center, 1133 Railroad Ave., Suite 100, Bellingham, WA 98225-5054. (Make a note that the donation is for the Sumas farmworkers.)

It’s uncertain how long the fired workers will stay in Sumas, but contributions from the community are making life easier for them, said Rosalinda Guillen, C2C’s executive director. Food and clothing aren’t needed, but the makeshift camp could use another generator, and gifts cards from Lowe’s and Home Depot allow purchases to make the camp more secure, Guillen said.

“People have been generous” to the farmworkers, Guillen said. “They have received incredible support.”

After Sunday’s Mass, the workers and their supporters sat down to a meal of tamales and rice. “I want to thank all the people who helped from my heart,” worker Oscar Ivan Andrade said through an interpreter. “We did not expect all this support.”

This is the second year that Andrade, a Mexican national, has come to the U.S. via the temporary worker program. Working conditions were even worse last year, he said, but there is no work available in Mexico, so he hopes to return in future years to earn money here. Andrade and other workers are speaking with lawyers to ensure their status is resolved before leaving the U.S., so that they can return legally.

“We are going to fight for what is just,” Andrade said. “For the rights of farm workers to be respected.”

archbishop and bishop greet peopleArchbishop Sartain (left photo) and Bishop Elizondo greet people after the Aug. 14 memorial Mass for Honesto Silva-Ibarra. Photo: Rex Yabut

Jean Parietti contributed to this report.

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