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Bringing Christ to Migrant Farm Workers

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Sisters bring Christ to Hispanic Farm Workers

Multiple Protestant churches, sprawling ranches and pine forests dot the scenic two-lane road that leads travelers to the tiny community of

Mayo, Fla. Located on the western edge of the Diocese of Saint Augustine, it isn’t until reaching Main Street that the Catholic presence comes into full view. An early 20th-century church, formerly used by a Baptist congregation, now serves as Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Mission.

The Monroy family proudly displays braided palms made by some of the migrant farm workers.
  Accompanied by Alma Huerta, Claretian Sister Tere Gallarreta (center) plays guitar as the congregation processes with palms as part of the Palm Sunday celebration.
  From left, Claretian Sisters Elisabet Rodriguez, Tere Gallarreta and Yolanda Nunez in front of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Church in Mayo, Fla.

In 2002, the Religious of Mary Immaculate, Claretian Missionary Sisters of Miami decided to expand their outreach ministry to North Florida. Sister Margarita Gomez, superior of the Claretian Sisters in Miami, approached Bishop Victor Galeone about “establishing a new house in an area where there was a growing Hispanic presence.” She offered him the assistance of two sisters that would provide evangelization outreach to Hispanic families.

“These sisters are ministering to some of the neediest of our flock - migrant workers with little or no command of English,” Bishop Galeone says. “Our diocese is deeply indebted to these dedicated women for what they have accomplished among the Hispanic community in so short a time: catechism classes, baptismal and confirmation preparation, weekly Bible studies, youth group activities, visiting the sick and conducting occasional Sunday Communion services in the absence of a priest. On my infrequent visits to Mayo, I detect the deep love and respect that our Hispanic parishioners have for these devoted sisters.”

“I love the community, the simplicity of life in this little corner of the world,” says the mission’s newest addition, Sister Teresa “Tere” Gallarreta. “That’s not to say it is easy - we have a lot to do in terms of evangelization.” She came to the mission in 2005, ready to serve the needs of the people who had previously traveled to Perry, Live Oak or Branford for Sunday Mass.

Although she has found her calling, Sister Tere admits that she didn’t always want to be a nun. “The calling kept coming, but I kept pushing it away.” It wasn’t until 2002 when she attended World Youth Day in Rome that the message took hold. “The whole week was a dialogue with God,” she recalls. After listening to Pope John Paul’s message of “Do Not Be Afraid,” Sister Tere became open to the idea of living a religious life. “I was filled with joy at that moment,” she says. She was drawn to the Claretian Sisters because of their work with the poor. Sister Tere joined two other sisters already working in the Mayo area, Sisters Yolanda Nunez and Elisabet Rodriguez.

And working closely with the sisters in their work with the migrants is Father Richard Perko, pastor of nearby St. Francis Xavier Parish in Live Oak. He celebrates a bilingual Mass on Saturdays at 5 p.m. He speaks very little Spanish, “but they love him because they see the effort he makes,” Sister Elisabet says.

One of the biggest challenges, according to the sisters, is providing evangelization outreach to those not attending church in a predominantly Protestant community. On Sundays, many Hispanics can be found just down the street on the soccer field when they are not working the dairy farms, raising animals or bundling pine straw.

In attempts to bring others to the mission, the sisters go on home visits and spread news of the mission by word-of-mouth. They also post flyers for upcoming events at the laundry and the store in town. “The Hispanic population has needs. We as a church are responsible (for recognizing) those needs,” Sister Elisabet says.

While weekends are mainly spent at the mission, a good part of the sisters’ time during the week is spent visiting other parishes, the nearby prison and private homes within Suwannee, Lafayette and occasionally Columbia counties.

Among her many duties, Sister Elisabet, a native of Cuba, visits the Mayo Correctional Institution for men two times per month. She conducts a Communion service for about 15 inmates. “I felt called to come here. They needed me,” Sister Elisabet says.

Uriel Posada, an eighth grade student in the confirmation class, clearly appreciates their presence. “They’re nice,” he says. “They help us with things we don’t know. They are kind to us, and we appreciate that.”

Joan and Bill Harney have attended Mass at the mission for a little more than six months, and they are among the few Anglo attendees. They find the sisters’ work a great addition to their community and have grown accustomed to the bilingual services.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Joan Harney says. “They blend in very well and have gotten to know the ministers and preachers in the area.”

A native of Puerto Rico, Sister Yolanda was living in Del Ray Beach, Fla., when she was called to become a Claretian Sister. She had a special desire to work in ministry with the Hispanic population in this part of the state because “they are not attended to.” She wants others in the diocese to know what goes on in their small, yet faithful and social community.

Although challenging, Sister Yolanda enjoys working to integrate the Mexican culture into North Florida. “Bringing the two cultures together, Hispanic and American, is the big challenge,” she says. “They [the Mexicans] are trying. It’s not as easy as people tend to believe. They are all trying to become part of this country, but it’s not easy.”

Helping where they can, the sisters know the importance of bringing more people into the growing church community. Before the sisters arrived, many residents had already decided to gather and raise money for a church. “Now that we have this,” Sister Yolanda says, gesturing around the adjoining meeting hall, “this gives them a place to come and worship together.”

On Palm Sunday in April, more than 50 people gathered for Mass and procession at the mission, a testament to the tireless work the Claretian Sisters have done in the past five years. Each of them knows this is what she has been called to do, and the sisters have advice for other women considering religious life.

“Know there are many different types of sisters,” Sister Yolanda advises. “If they [women] have something inside they are trying to discern, listen to that.”

“Be open and consider it an option in life,” Sister Tere adds. “Be open to God’s call if that’s what he indeed is calling you to. Be not afraid.”

To learn more about the Claretian Sisters call Sister Claudia Ortega at (305) 274-6148 or visit For more information about religious life, contact Dominican Sister Maureen Kelly, the bishop’s delegate for Religious at (904) 264-0577 or email: