GLOBAL.diocesan shieldAnita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Born without arms, Tony Melendez has chosen an unlikely career – the Nicaraguan-American plays guitar with his toes.

“He’s a marvel and a wonderful voice, and a great message that he gives,” said Sr. Cecilia Fandel, a Servants of Mary sister who has enjoyed three of Melendez’s performances. “It’s a very uplifting … kind of message. Not only the words, but the way the music is composed. It stirs the soul. It stirs the heart.”

A member of the Rusk County Catholic Community’s Hispanic ministry committee, Sr. Cecilia will see Melendez in concert a fourth time, Sunday, Sept. 13, in Cameron.

Tickets for the bilingual performance will be $10. Proceeds will support the committee’s drive to purchase more Spanish-language materials for community use.

Over the course of the past several months, the committee has studied census statistics to find out more about the underserved Latin American Catholic population.

They learned 800 Hispanics live within a 50-mile radius of Rusk County; there are approximately 7,000 in the 16-county diocese. More than 6 percent of Turtle Lake’s population is Latino, the largest concentration of any town in the diocese.

“They are Catholic,” Sr. Cecilia added. “Somehow, they have to be reached and welcomed.”

The concert is one means of bringing together Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of whom may feel isolated on the farms where they work, the sister said.

Around this time of year, the committee typically hosts a fiesta. They invited Hispanics from Barron County to join last year’s celebration; about a dozen attended. This time around, they got a rental LED display for the concert – and will have a live music and a battle of the Christian rock bands concert.

“It was just good to have a mixing, and have additional people there,” she added. “It seems like they have a hard time feeling like there’s enough of them to be a community. That’s why we really invited them last year.”

Melendez was born with no arms and a club foot, a result of his mother’s taking thalidomide when she was pregnant. The family immigrated to the United States so he could have corrective surgery; he has been composing and performing Christian music for decades.

Sr. Cecilia first saw Melendez in the 1980s in Chicago. She was astonished by his abilities.

“Sometimes you can hardly see his foot move,” she said.

His voice and style have matured since then, and she looks forward to hearing more of his “good, Christian music that’s focused on God.”

When you see him, you feel like you should have pity on him, she added, “but you just can’t.”

During the concert, Hispanic and English speakers will also have the opportunity to mingle “in a very positive way,” Sr. Cecilia added, “and they would be visible to us.”

When Sr. Cecilia’s ancestors were new to this country, missionary priests would travel around to say Mass and offer sacraments to immigrants “in their mother tongue, so they could really feel the power of prayer.”

Her family was Bohemian, and she’s seen the same priest’s name on many sacramental records. Sr. Cecilia’s dream is to offer the same service to today’s immigrants – bring either an active or retired Spanish-speaking priest to the diocese to minister to them.

“That’s kind of my vision, but the committee, they think that could be possible,” she added. “We just have to lift it up and make it visible.”

“They say that’s going to be the church of tomorrow,” she said. “They’re also the church of today. We need to find a way to serve the church of today and the church of tomorrow.”

So far, eight Latin American children have been baptized in the area, and a couple have had their first Communions, Sr. Cecilia added.

“Those kids are getting a little older now, and I think we can start working with the parents and catechizing,” she added. “So, it’s growing.”