Tomato crates were stacked for walls and the floor was concrete, but brilliant sunshine and a warm autumn breeze filled a makeshift outdoor chapel at Scott Farms in Erwin on Oct. 26 as more than 250 agricultural contract workers, their families and friends gathered for a special Mass to celebrate the end of the growing season.
After working six months harvesting fruits and vegetables at Scott and other farms in upper East Tennessee, many of the workers will return home to Mexico for the winter.
“Even though they are so far from home, they are an important part of our diocese,” said Father David Boettner, vicar general of the Diocese of Knoxville and the principal celebrant of the Mass.
“I think it’s great for me or anybody that represents the diocese to be able to come and be present so they know that they are important and that their presence here is noticed and valued,” Father Boettner added.
The Mass was organized by St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission in Erwin and celebrated in Spanish.
Joining Father Boettner as concelebrants were Father Tom Charters, GHM, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel; Father Peter Iorio, pastor of St. Mary Church in Johnson City; Father Francisco Peñaflor and Deacon Mike Jacobs.
Father Peñaflor, who made the trip from Guanajuato, Mexico, delivered the homily.
“Today’s Gospel was about love of God and love of neighbor,” Father Boettner said.
“One of the things Father Peñaflor talked about was that to love our neighbor we have to first start by loving our family, and he was encouraging these families to love each other and to take good care of each other as they’re preparing to head home back to Mexico.”
Most of the men who work at Scott Farms arrived in May and lived in dormitories located next to fields where they spent the summer harvesting tomatoes and strawberries.
A farm chapel was built more than 20 years ago by Mr. Wayne Scott, a Methodist who owned the company and was concerned for the spiritual life and wellbeing of the contract workers he employed.
Because of the good weather and the high attendance, Sunday’s Mass was celebrated outside.
“It really, really meant a lot, especially back then because we were basically the only Hispanic people in this area,” said Lorena Reynoso, whose perfect English belies the fact that she is a self-described “migrant child.”
“It really meant a lot that Mr. Scott went out of his way to build that for us and then that the priests from St. Mary’s came over here to give us Mass. They’ve always tried to give us Mass in Spanish – so that meant even more. It’s very special,” Ms. Reynoso added.
Ms. Reynoso was born in Mexico but travelled with her parents as they worked farms in the United States. It was a life she lived until she was 18. Ms. Reynoso now lives in Erwin. She and her family attend St. Michael—a mission church that serves many of the Hispanic families living in the area.
“It gets very quiet from (The Feast of our Lady of) Guadalupe until mid-January because a lot of our families who live here are legal, have papers, so they can go home, said Kathy O’Brien, the pastoral assistant at St. Michael.
“They go home for Christmas and all the celebrations. It gets very quiet at St. Michael’s for Christmas. But the children have got to be back for school so they are back mid-January,” Ms. O’Brien said with a smile.
Sunday’s Mass was attended by many of the Hispanic families living in the area—but the focus was on the contract workers, men who stay at the farm all summer and will now return home until next year’s growing season.
“This is such a beautiful community,” Father Boettner said.
“It was the faith of the folks here that really led Mr. Scott to build that chapel because he saw their faith and wanted to build a place for them. This is a great way to gather together and celebrate the harvest, what God has brought forth from the earth and all the good things that are going on here with these folks.”
Following Mass, all in attendance celebrated as a large family would – with plenty of food. Bowls of rice, chicken, sauces and tamales filled a banquet table at the back of the makeshift Mass site.
“They say all good Mexican celebrations include three things,” Ms. O’Brien said. “Misa, música and mesa—Mass, music and tables for the food.”
The celebration at Capilla de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe fulfilled all that – and more.