By Tanya Connor
The Catholic Free Press
A parish in the Diocese of Worcester helped its former pastor with his present ministry – aiding migrants at the U.S. border.
Assumptionist Father Peter R. Precourt, once pastor of St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish in Sturbridge, is now pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in El Paso, Texas. St. Francis Xavier houses the Immigrant and Refugee Project sponsored by the Augustinians of the Assumption.
People legally entering the United States are housed, fed and receive other services at St. Francis Xavier, as they prepare to move to the states where their sponsors await them, according to Father Precourt.
This year, St. Anne’s broadened its usual first Communion collection to invite the whole parish to donate to the migrant project, said Assumptionist Father Alex Castro, pastor of the Sturbridge parish.
One of St. Anne’s neighboring parishes – St. Joseph in Charlton – is also planning to offer financial help.
Father Precourt told The Catholic Free Press that when the Augustinians of the Assumption were seeking a place of their own to work with migrants at the border, the Diocese of El Paso offered to have them staff one of its parishes – St. Francis Xavier – like they staff St. Anne’s in Sturbridge. At St. Francis Xavier, the Assumptionists set up a new ministry that began receiving migrants in September 2020, he said. The priests also serve the 450-family parish.
“We were looking for migrant ministry first and foremost,” said Assumptionist Father Dennis Gallagher, who just finished his term as provincial superior of the congregation’s North American Province. “We consider solidarity with the poor to be one of the calling cards of this province.”
According to Father Gallagher, Assumptionist founder Father Emmanuel d’Alzon “said we should embrace the great causes of our times.” Province members consider migrant ministry to be one of those causes today, Father Gallagher said.
St. Francis Xavier is an ideal spot because it is at the border, across from immigration territory and one of the main bridges to Juárez, Mexico, Father Precourt said.
But it’s not primarily Mexicans the Assumptionists help to relocate, he said. The migrants, who come through Mexico to the shelter, are from about 16 different nations, mostly from Central America and Haiti, but also from Turkey and African countries.
Father Precourt said most of the migrants speak Spanish, which the Assumptionists also speak, and he communicates with Haitians in French. Many migrants can translate messages into other languages via their cell phones.
Migrants whose paperwork is in order do not need to stay in a detention center; they come directly from the border, Father Precourt said. Those who are in detention centers can come into the U.S. after they are processed and released by the U.S. government. St. Francis Xavier is one of at least 17 other shelters in the area.
Most of the shelters are church-affiliated, Father Precourt said. One shelter the Assumptionists collaborate with is operated by the Religious of the Assumption, one of their sister communities, in Chaparral, New Mexico.
Last November and December, 1,200 to 1,400 migrants per day were released in El Paso, Father Precourt said. He and others expected that number to rise, but the number declined from December to May, and those working with them did not know why, he said.
“We expect it will go back up again,” because detention centers have a cap, he said. One day last month he said 246 individuals had been released, and the second weekend in July more than 300 were released to various shelters.
At St. Francis Xavier, parishioners and other volunteers work with Father Precourt and the associate pastors – Assumptionist Fathers Ronald Sibugan, a former campus minister at Assumption University in Worcester, and Chano Lopez Solis of Mexico – to aid the migrants. The migrants get help to contact their sponsors and get transportation to their destination.
“We’ve had people going all over the place,” Father Precourt said; not to Alaska or Hawaii, but most other states.
Up to 60 migrants at a time can stay at St. Francis Xavier, where cots are set up for them in the church hall, he said.
“We provide them with warm meals, clothing, support, and, most importantly, a place they can call home,” explains a printed message from Father Precourt to his former parishioners in Sturbridge. He appealed to the generosity of his former parishioners this spring to help cover expenses incurred by the migrant ministry.
His Easter season message spoke of “a sense of urgency and deep concern” for the migrants. He reported that they received more than 300 migrants per month, and the utility bills were rising because of the numbers.
St. Anne’s collected $2,988 for this migrant ministry during a special collection and the first Communion collection, according to an announcement in the parish’s June 4 Sunday bulletin.
Each year, the first Communion teacher tells students about an Assumptionist ministry they will support, Father Castro said. He said they usually do that through a collection taken at the first Communion Mass, which, in recent years, has supported catechism classes for children in the Philippines.
But this year adults helping with faith formation at St. Anne’s suggested supporting the migrant ministry instead, Father Castro said. He said first Communion teacher Patricia Haggerty, a lay Assumptionist, had learned of Father Precourt’s ministry through Assumptionist communications.
“Why don’t we do this as a parish collection?” Father Castro suggested. He said an insert was placed in the bulletin ahead of time, and, on first Communion weekend in May, a second collection for the migrant ministry was taken at all Masses.
He said Father Robert A. Grattaroti, pastor of the neighboring St. Joseph Parish in Charlton, approached him at a deanery meeting and said his parish would help support the ministry, too.
Father Grattaroti told The Catholic Free Press that St. Joseph’s is to send Father Precourt a tithe from a parish collection in August. A flier will also be available for parishioners who want to donate directly to the migrant ministry, he said.
Father Precourt said that, with financial donations, he can buy what is needed. It does not make sense to pay to send items other than money from the Worcester Diocese, he explained.
He is also seeking volunteers to help with the work, but does not have a place to house them; they would need to arrange their own lodging, he said.
– Editor’s note: Those wishing to help can donate online at assumption.us/aa-donate/ and choose the El Paso Migrant Ministry. Those wishing to mail a check can make it out to Augustinians of the Assumption, earmarked for El Paso Migrant Ministry, and send it to Augustinians of the Assumption, 330 Market St., Brighton, MA 02135.