Just a few miles north of the Tompkins County border, a social-ministry initiative assists migrant farm workers during the summer and fall months. This year, Ithaca’s St. Catherine of Siena Parish has become active in the effort as well.
St. Catherine’s gathered more than 300 medicinal items from parishioners at weekend Masses July 17-18 and 24-25. These donations — which included such goods as aspirin, cold medicine and stomach-relief products — were then forwarded to a health clinic at a farm-worker camp in King Ferry.
“I’m delighted with the parish response thus far, and hope for much more involvement in the future,” said Sister Mary O’Brien, CSJ, pastoral associate at St. Catherine’s.
The ecumenical outreach is spearheaded by the social-ministry committee at Good Shepherd Catholic Community, a parish in southern Cayuga County. This annual project enlists participation from much of Cayuga as well as parts of Tompkins and Seneca counties.
A small group from St. Catherine’s visited the camp July 21 to greet workers as they arrived for the season, assisting in the distribution of such items as blankets and empty water jugs. Henry Ricciuti, a member of St. Catherine’s peace-and-justice committee, said organizers seemed well prepared and knew several of the migrants from previous years. He observed that the farm workers warmed up quickly to Debbie Patrick, a Good Shepherd parishioner who coordinates the overall migrant-ministry effort.
“They were very responsive and obviously appreciative,” Ricciuti said of the migrant farm workers. “We were terribly impressed with the work already going on; a lot of people were very generous.” Ricciuti and Sister O’Brien were joined at the camp July 21 by Father Michael Mahler, St. Catherine’s pastor; and Helen Steh, another member of the peace-and-justice committee.
The camp is located less than two miles from Our Lady of the Lake Church in King Ferry. There, approximately 125 Haitian workers — coming primarily from south Florida — spend approximately three months in residence while laboring in nearby corn fields.
Ricciuti said the King Ferry facility was in better shape than many migrant farm-worker camps in upstate New York, but that conditions were still “pretty primitive.” Patrick said the workers are in need of basic living items because they are bused up from Florida and can only bring a limited number of possessions. In addition, their unfamiliarity with the New York climate leaves them unprotected when temperatures begin to tumble.
Ricciuti said St. Catherine’s Parish will continue collecting needed items for the migrants until they return south in October. Parishioners were also due to attend a welcoming picnic for the farm workers Aug. 8 in King Ferry, with Steh coordinating a cookie-baking effort for the event.
“This is a great experience for us — to have an up-front, close experience of how these folks live,” Sister O’Brien said.
Ricciuti said the subject of migrant farm workers has long been an interest of St. Catherine’s peace-and-justice committee, and was given new energy once Sister O’Brien became involved on the committee. Ricciuti, a professor emeritus of human development at Cornell University, also praised colleague Herb Engman for his assistance. Engman serves as director of the Cornell Migrant Program and is active in health, housing, public-policy and youth-development issues related to migrant farm workers. He conducted a seminar on these matters at St. Catherine’s earlier this year.
Sister O’Brien and Ricciuti said St. Catherine’s initiative coincides with an effort by the diocesan public-policy committee to improve migrant farm workers’ rights — most notably through support of the federal Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act (S. 1645) of 2003. St. Catherine’s has sponsored a petition drive in support of passing the congressional bill, which is still under consideration.
“It was important to us not only that we do something hands-on, but also something that would lead to systemic change,” Sister O’Brien said, adding that the parish will continue its public-policy efforts for migrant farm workers on the federal and state levels.