Chester County’s immigrants look to Pope Francis for hope as they pray for policy reform

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Nowhere is Pope Francis’ Latin influence more evident than at Chester County’s St. Rocco parish. The church is the center of worship and community life for the mostly Mexican population who live and work around the mushroom farms in the Kennett Square region.

To add to the Latin spirit, the parish is served by an order of Spanish speaking nuns, whose mother house in is in Argentina, where the pope hails from. 

When the election of Pope Francis was announced in 2013 , the nuns in the St. Rocco parish had an extra sense of glee.

“Everybody was screaming and jumping up and down and I wasn’t even sure what had happened or who it was that was elected. But the sisters recognized it right away because, some of the sisters are from Argentina and they recognized his name right away. They were, of course, very happy,” said Monsignor Francis Depman.

The nuns of the order of the Servants of The Lord are devoted to the Virgin Mary. They are all named Mary, so to distinguish themselves from one another they call themselves names attached to the Virgin, like Stella Maris or Mary Aurora.

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Two sisters stand in front of St. Rocco Church in Chester County. (Elisabeth Perez Luna/WHYY)

They were selected by Cardinal Anthony Bevilaqua in 1996 to serve St. Rocco’s Spanish speaking parishioners, said Mary Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, the mother superior. She is elated by Pope Francis visit.

“I think he’s going to bring a fire back into our Catholics in this country,” she said. “Just his presence, because he’s very humble, very open, very loving. He speaks truth and speaks it with great love and that’s what the people want right now. They need hope. They need hope amidst all their stuff going on — their sufferings, their pains.”

A growing church

The church is located is located in Avondale, not too far from Kennett Square. The landscape is populated by white windowless buildings  — the mushroom barns, or las “hongueras.” Almost half of the mushrooms in the country are cultivated here. This very specialized and labor intensive form of agriculture is the main source of work for thousands of immigrant farmers. The majority of those workers are Mexican and devout Catholics said Depman, who remembers coming to the area in February 1990.

“We started off as a mission. When I first came it was just one Mass and eventually it developed to seven Masses, one on Saturday, six on Sunday,” he said. 

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St. Rocco’s parish in Chester County is a community hub for its mostly immigrant parishoners. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

Today, his parish and church is one of the most active in the area. Serving approximately 10,000 families, every week the church and school buzz to the whirlwind of ceremonies, masses, weddings, baptisms, catechism classes and communions.

Depman has seen the community develop and thrive.

“People have jobs. They have a lot of work. People, when I first came here were living in little apartments or barracks on mushroom farms. Now, they own their own home. They have their own car. Their children are going to college. They achieved what many would say is the American dream,” he said.

Some of the people have opened restaurants and small businesses , or have bought the mushroom farms they once worked for.

But the flow of immigrants continues and the parish has not escaped the shadow of fear that permeates poor, immigrant communities.

It’s one of things Sister Mary Stella Maris’ hopes Pope Francis will address on his visit. 

“I want the pope to know that people who suffer will elevate their prayers to him and will ask his benediction to help the suffering, the poor and the families divided by immigration,” she said. 

Under the shadow of ICE

The parishioners stay close to their homes, schools, workplace and church and don’t venture too far away. They tend to flock to church and community events like the Fair of St Rocco when a grand mass is followed by celebrations. Games, food, music and traditional events pepper the fields surrounding the church .

In the garden Benito Morales is keeping a close watch on his rambunctious granddaughter. He said he would like to ask the pope for his benediction and prayers for a solution to the immigration woes of many of his compatriots.

Sixteen-year-old Sammy Placencia performs in a traditional Mexican folkloric group . He lives in Delaware but still comes with his parents to worship in St Rocco. What would he ask the Pope ?

“I’d ask him, what could we do to help with immigration so we won’t have trouble with the law .”

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