Hispanic Workers Prepare for Pope’s NYC Visit

El Diario’s Zaira Cortés reports on two groups of Hispanic workers getting ready for Pope Francis’ visit to New York City Sept. 24-25: Volunteers from the Don Bosco Community Center in Westchester County are building the chair the pope will sit on during Mass at Madison Square Garden, and the wives of day laborers in Yonkers are embroidering the altar cloths for the liturgies the pope will officiate.

Preparing the chair that Pope Francis will use when he holds Mass at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 25. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Preparing the chair that Pope Francis will use when he holds Mass at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 25. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

In an improvised wood shop under a tree full of walnuts in Port Chester, three Hispanic laborers build the oak wood chair that Pope Francis will use during his visit to New York in September.

The piece of furniture, which will have simple details ‒ mirroring the pope’s own personality ‒ will be used by the pontiff during the Mass he will officiate in Madison Square Garden.

Amid hammers and saws, Dominican workers Fausto Hernández, Mexican Héctor Rojas and Francisco Santamaría, from Nicaragua, follow the instructions of Salesian priest Sal Sammarco ‒ who does not speak Spanish ‒ down to the last detail.

“Faith breaks through the language barrier,” said Sammarco, a master carpenter. “Fausto has a better level of English and he translates for me, but we really communicate through our spirits.”

A Virgin of Guadalupe adorned with flowers guards the entrance to the makeshift wood shop, built inside a white garage. The figure welcomed Cardinal Dolan as he walked in last Thursday ‒ his cheeks red from the afternoon heat. He said that he was happy to meet the Latino carpenters.

“You do wonderful work,” the priest smiled as he patted the back of Gonzalo Cruz, from Mexico, who is an organizer for the Don Bosco Community Center. “Latino workers represent hard work, humility and creativity. They are the ideal people for this project,” said Dolan.

Sammarco, the head of the project, prayed to St. Joseph, patron of carpenters, that Pope Francis is satisfied with the simple design and details of the mahogany-colored chair.

“My second name is Joseph, just like Mary’s husband. My parents predicted my profession when they baptized me,” said Santamaría, who came from Managua 22 years ago. “I asked St. Joseph to bless my hands so that I can work the wood like a master,” said the carpenter.

Not that he will be need much divine help, as Santamaría has done this since he was a child. When he was 14, he dropped out of school to learn the craft of the Son of God.

The carpenter takes a moment to think as he swipes the sawdust off a work table and, looking at a picture of the chair, he explains that it will carry the essence of its builders the same way wood holds the soul of the tree to which it belonged.

“It is made of oak because it is strong like the Catholic Church,” said Santamaría. “It is a great pride for us humble people to be chosen to do something so meaningful.”

Santamaría said that violence in Nicaragua made him cross the most inhospitable borders, and that he never imagined that, decades later, he would be involved in the preparations for the pope’s welcome. The carpenter thinks that Pope Francis is a spokesperson for peace.

The hands of Mexican worker Héctor Rojas, who uses the services available at the Don Bosco Community Center, are not only good at handling wood but also at rebuilding what has been devastated by disaster.

“After Hurricane Sandy, many of us laborers went to the affected areas in Yonkers. They say that those who have less are the one who give the most, so here we are, volunteering again,” said the Toluca native, proudly. “We don’t expect to see the pope [in person] as payment for our work. Our satisfaction comes from having been chosen to build the chair where he will rest,” said Rojas.

Dominican worker Fausto Hernández , another member of the Center, said that he did not hesitate to raise his hand when Sammarco asked for volunteers for the mission, which he considers one of the most significant of his life.

“Pope Francis speaks out for the poor, and it is the poor who are welcoming him to New York,” said Hernández. “My family is proud and shares the joy in my heart. Our home is blessed forever.”

Dolan recognizes immigrants’ work

When asked about mogul Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant comments, Cardinal Dolan said that the Republican presidential candidate would have to meet the workers in order to understand their contribution.

“He would surely be delighted if he gave himself the chance to live alongside them,” said the priest.

Gonzalo Cruz, who hails from Puebla, said that the pope’s chair is not only a project made by the laborers but also by their families and the Latino community.

“It is very symbolic,” said Cruz. “We are united and full of hope, eager to continue in this struggle for social justice. The pope’s visit fully revitalizes us.”

Ignacia González and Agueda Zabaleta (wearing glasses) embroider altar cloths for the Pope’s masses. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Ignacia González and Agueda Zabaleta (wearing glasses) embroider altar cloths for the Pope’s masses. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Ignacia González, from Mexico, delicately untangles a skein of cotton embroidery floss in pearlescent blue. Each stitch made on the bright white poplin gives life to one of the doves on the cloths that will decorate Pope Francis’ altar during his official masses in the Big Apple.

“Embroidering is an ancestral labor that carries a lot of meaning,” said González without lifting her eyes off her needlework. “Mexican mothers learn it from our grandmothers and teach it to our daughters.”

González belongs to a group of 30 Yonkers women, all married to day laborers, who formed an embroidery and sewing workshop to support themselves with the help of Catholic Charities group Obreros Unidos (“united workers”).

The collective happily took on the task of embroidering the altar cloths for the liturgies the pope will officiate in September, but the experience has special significance for González. She saw Pope John Paul II up close when he visited Mexico City in 2002 to canonize St. Juan Diego.

“I stood in line since dawn, and waited for hours to see the pope for a few minutes but, in my heart, that moment was eternal,” said an emotional González. “I never thought that, years later, I would be embroidering cloths for Pope Francis. I feel blessed.”

Coincidentally, Pope John Paul II beatified St. Juan Diego ‒ the Virgin of Guadalupe’s messenger ‒ on July 31, González’s birthday.

Ignacia Gonzalez embroiders altar cloths for the Pope's visit. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Ignacia Gonzalez embroiders altar cloths for the Pope’s visit. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

For the young mother, thread and needle are the instruments of faith for what she considers a wonderful moment. Her fellow seamstress, Águeda Zavaleta, who is also embroidering the pope’s altar cloth, said that, with each stitch, she gives thanks for the miracle of life.

“My daughter was hospitalized when she was born and we almost lost her, but God left her with us and now she is a healthy and beautiful kid,” said a tearful Zalaveta. “That is why I am so grateful to receive this task of embroidering for the pope, which I think is a message from the Lord.”

Obreros Unidos organizer Janet Hernández said that the papal visit will also touch her in a special way. Her 80-year-old mother, María Rosario, was a guest of honor in the pope’s recent tour of several cities in her native Ecuador.

“My mom was acknowledged for her pastoral work and, to me, she is a role model to follow. We both have had the good fortune to serve a pope spreading messages of love and reconciliation.”

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