Deacon Mike Cullen baptizes a baby Dec. 21 at St. Joseph Church, Barron. Parishes in Barron and Rusk counties are reaching out to Latin American Catholics in their region, and clergy hope to see development of a diocesan-wide Hispanic ministry. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Deacon Mike Cullen baptizes a baby Dec. 21 at St. Joseph Church, Barron. Parishes in Barron and Rusk counties are reaching out to Latin American Catholics in their region, and clergy hope to see development of a diocesan-wide Hispanic ministry. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald Staff

For 25 years, Sr. Cecilia Fandel served God in a multicultural neighborhood in Chicago. Ladysmith, where she now lives, has a more homogenous population.

But, times are changing.

Forty percent of the dairy industry depends on foreign labor, and census records from 2000 and 2010 show “the white population is decreasing, and the Spanish and Asian population is growing,” said Sr. Cecilia.

In northern Wisconsin, “they’re hidden,” she added.

Compelled by immigration issues, some Latinos are laying low. But the Servants of Mary sister believes Catholic parishes have an obligation to minister to them.

“For the Hispanics, this is their culture,” she explained. “Their culture is Catholic. We need to welcome them.”

She feels the first step is “making people aware of what’s in their backyard” – finding families and reaching out.

Together with the pastor of the Rusk County Catholic Community, Fr. Gene Murphy, Sr. Cecilia formed a Hispanic Outreach Ministry in the six-parish cluster.

She hopes to lead by example.

“I think the time is coming where we have to come out of the catacombs,” she said.

Emerging ministry

Deacon Mike Cullen, who serves the cluster parishes of St. Joseph, Barron; St. Boniface, Chetek; St. Peter, Cameron; and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Strickland; is trying to do just that.

Barron has primarily two immigrant populations – Africans and Latin Americans. Many Somalis bring their own Islamic tradition, so “my heart is with addressing the needs of Mexican immigrants,” he said.

“They’re in our farms, and doing great work,” added the deacon. “Some wonderful, wonderful, wonderful families.”
On the afternoon of Dec. 21, Deacon Cullen baptized four Latino children at St. Joseph Church. He conducted the ceremony in English, and a parishioner provided Spanish translations of both the text and the deacon’s message for the families.

Afterward, Deacon Cullen spoke of the importance of serving migrant Catholics through Masses, events and religious education. He wants to see a diocesan-wide Hispanic ministry that includes the teaching of pastoral Spanish, catechesis and support for parishes.

Latinos have come to this country “just like our ancestors did,” and Deacon Cullen said they are here to stay.

“There’s a great need,” he added. “If we don’t pay attention … other faiths will.”

Language barrier

As far as Fr. Gerald Hagen knows, there aren’t many Spanish-speaking immigrants living near his parish cluster of St. Therese of Lisieux, Phillips; St. Paul the Apostle, Catawba; and St. John the Baptist, Prentice.

He’s poised for outreach when they come.

Armed with three years of high school Spanish and the linguistic benefits of annual mission trips to Guatemala, Fr. Hagen has been called on to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and to generally help out with Hispanic ministry in Rusk and Barron counties.

“That’s especially so over at Bruce, because there is a community of Mexican dairy farm workers from the state of Veracruz,” he added.

One of Fr. Hagen’s parishioners is involved with development projects in Guatemala, and that’s how the priest came to lead mission trips there.

Every year, Fr. Hagen tries to take a group of confirmation candidates to Central America for what he calls a “social justice immersion experience.”

Here, most kids aren’t exposed to the dirt floors and stick shacks that are prevalent at that level of poverty.

“Primarily, I want the kids to get their boots on the ground, engage in something meaningful to help the poor,” he said.
Back home, Fr. Hagen’s goal is simply to reach out.

“I’m not a perfect speaker of Spanish,” he said. “I can get my point across and I can converse.”

Developing relationships  

Last December, Fr. Hagen celebrated a Spanish-language Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Mary Catholic Church, Bruce.

It was the parish’s first outreach effort.

Deacon Craig Voldberg is one leader in St. Mary’s Hispanic ministry. He envisions the communities celebrating monthly Spanish-language Masses to serve the 30 or so migrant workers in the area.

So far, they’ve been limited to the feast day and a Fiesta de Verano, or Summerfest, this summer. He’s trying to learn Spanish, but he hasn’t had much luck with Rosetta Stone.

“Our language barrier is our biggest obstacle,” he said. “I can’t do Spanish worth a hoot.”

Deacon Voldberg contacts Latino workers, which include both families and single men, through their employers’ farms. At Ss. Peter and Paul, Weyerhaeuser, they gather for Mass, food and festivities, and a couple of local Texas transplants help with cooking and translations.

It’s a low-key affair, the deacon said. They don’t publish events in the newspaper or parish bulletin because they want to build relationships without generating political conflict.
“We’re actually at the point of breaking out and seeking funds,” he added.

A group of nuns from Chicago awarded them an $800 grant for outreach; now, they need money for a Spanish-language Roman Missal.

“We’re developing,” said Deacon Voldberg. “We’re gaining steam. Sr. Cecilia Fandel has been the fireplug behind this.”
The Spanish Bibles she brings back from Chicago are snapped up quickly, he said, and they’ve got a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was gifted to Fr. Hagen by the sisters at Marywood.

Deacon Voldberg, too, recognizes immigrants’ hunger for God.
“There’s this yearning, and it’s really a matter of feeding them,” he added. “They want that faith text. It’s been very gratifying in that sense.”

His biggest fear is they won’t be able to keep the ministry going. He hopes the families themselves will someday become organizers.

“There’s so much potential here, and you’re frustrated because of the communication gap,” he said. “It’s so fragile.”

Political ‘piecemeal’

Religious freedom, right to work and human dignity are core values of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross, an order of nuns founded in 1856 in Switzerland.

“From the beginning of our time in the U.S., we have both been immigrants and ministered to immigrants,” said Sr. Pat Cormack, provincial of the Merrill-based United States Province.

Immigration is a key political issue for Sr. Pat and her colleagues in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of leaders from Catholic groups of women religious that has, in her words, “always been very involved in promoting a social justice agenda.”

“I think that our biggest concern is – part of the reason the system doesn’t work – there has been piecemeal change,” she said.

To promote comprehensive legislative reform, Sr. Pat and Sr. Cecilia organized a pilgrimage to U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy’s office in October. Nearly 30 adults and students traveled to Wausau to voice their support.

“I know that he is very cognizant of the needs of families,” she said of Duffy. “In fact, he represents a Hispanic population in this area that he needs to give attention to.”
Sr. Pat feels current immigration policies lead to the destruction of families. The deportation of foreign-born parents leaves their U.S.-born children stranded, and there are other negative consequences as well.

Community support

In Merrill, Hispanic ministry is a community undertaking.

Judy Woller is the executive director of Haven Inc., a shelter for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Woller sees a strong link between immigration policies and human trafficking. She gives presentations on the modern equivalent of slavery.

“I’ve been involved with the Latino population since they came to Merrill about 10, 12 years ago,” Woller said.

A crisis center, Haven connects victims with advocates, hosts weekly support groups and offers anger management and batterer’s treatment classes.

Human trafficking started out in Wisconsin’s resort towns and spread from there, she said. When educating groups about the problem, Woller talks about sexual slavery and forced labor and tries to show her audience “what that looks like,” so they can recognize the difference between prostitution and enslavement, for example.

She is also involved with Comunidad Hispana, a program that helps Latinos find jobs. Grants from a Catholic organization were funding the service, but they don’t have a grant writer, so they are currently seeking other financing.

In Lincoln County, most Hispanic residents work on dairy or mink farms, according to Woller, and tree farmers hire migrant workers.

“The Latinos in our area are very hard-working folks,” she added.

Woller also crosses paths with several of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross, who have related community projects in jail ministry, human trafficking and diversity education.

Some of the nuns have mentoring relationships with inmates, while others are out educating the community about trafficking. Theirs is important work, she said.