El Paso, Texas, wedged between the U.S. and Mexico, has always been on the frontier. Sacred Heart Parish remains a busy place. Its office is open seven days a week to serve the needs of parishioners in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation.
By Thomas Rochford SJ
El Paso, Texas, wedged between the U.S. and Mexico, has always been on the frontier. The city traces its growth to the railroads that arrived in 1881 as west Texas developed farming, ranching and mining after the Civil War.
The Italian Jesuits who founded the Church in this area had to develop new institutions with few resources. Headquarters in Naples, Italy, were far away.
That spirit lives on in the DNA of the local church, according to Fr. Ron Gonzales, an El Paso native and pastor of the Jesuits’ Sacred Heart Parish. “It has to be that way,” he said. “Out here you are on your own, far away from New Orleans.”
The best-known El Paso Jesuits invented programs to fulfill unmet needs. Fr. Carlos Pinto, known as the Apostle of El Paso, was the most prominent of a group of Jesuits from the Naples Province of Italy, who were driven out of their homelands during the Revolution of 1860 and became missionaries in the American West. From the rectory at Sacred Heart, Pinto and the Jesuits served faith communities up and down the Rio Grande Valley and on both sides of the border. Under his leadership, the Jesuits built 14 churches and seven schools between 1892 and 1917.
Fr. Anthony J. Schuler was the first bishop of El Paso and the only Jesuit U.S. bishop in his time. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1886 at Florissant, Mo., studied at Saint Louis University and taught in Denver at Sacred Heart College, later to become Regis University.
Fr. Harold Rahm served at Sacred Heart Parish from 1952 to
1964. Known as the “bicycling priest,” Rahm left a legacy of nonprofits
inspired by his work including
an outreach center for gang members and other at-risk youth, an employment office, a thrift store, a credit union and homes for young people. Every morning, he delivered breakfast to the elderly on his bicycle.
From 1964 until his death in 2006, Fr. Rick Thomas directed Our Lady’s Youth Center, which expanded its ministries to the poor in Juarez, Mexico, in such areas as nutrition, physical and mental health, and education.
Recent pastors, Fr. Rafael Garcia and Fr. Eddie Gros, continued that tradition and Sacred Heart Parish remains a busy place. Its office is open seven days a week to serve the needs of parishioners in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation.
According to the U.S. Census, the neighborhood around the parish has a 64.4% poverty rate. The city of El Paso estimates the unemployment rate in that area is 29%, three times that of the metropolitan area. Only 18% of the adults in the neighborhood have high school degrees.
The parish is the closest U.S. Jesuit ministry to the Mexican border. Pedestrians on the bridge over the Rio Grande that divides the U.S. and Mexico can see the Sacred Heart tower as soon as they exit customs, only a few blocks away. Sacred Heart has a long and trusted relationship with parishioners who are undocumented. It welcomes newly arrived migrants and reaches out to unaccompanied minors in detention.
The El Paso port of entry receives the second-highest number of people crossing into the United States at its border, second only to the one in San Diego. The city is a frequent crossing point for illegal entrants.
Congregating on streets around the church are laborers hoping to get work for the day. The first arrive around 4 a.m. looking for fieldwork followed by later arrivals looking for construction work. A third group seeks cleaning or painting jobs.
On Fridays, a group of volunteers staff La Dispensa, the parish food bank. Fr. Mike Chesney works with eight volunteers in the St. Vincent de Paul program. The volunteers assess the needs and deliver emergency help to people.
The parish even runs its own restaurant, La Tilma, housed in the gym of the former youth center. The restaurant does not make money, but Gonzales thinks it gets people involved in the parish.
Traditional sacramental work keeps the four priests busy celebrating Masses in Spanish and English, hearing confessions and visiting homes. Parishioners are respectful and grateful and ask the priests for blessings after Mass.
The many demands for help easily could overwhelm.
The Jesuits tried to help people with bus tickets, but canceled the program when the need exceeded resources. Each month, the parish’s operating expenses exceed its revenue by $5,000. Benefactors make up the difference and are key to the parish's survival.
The parish collaborates with area agencies rather than trying to do everything itself. In one such partnership, an agency screens renters and manages apartments that are owned by the parish.
The parish provides liturgy and sacraments to Catholics on both sides of the border. Many who come for early-morning Mass live in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, but work in El Paso.
Like many parishes, Sacred Heart has a school, but its students are economically disadvantaged adults. The Centro Pastoral, housed in a former high school, offers a variety of adult courses in computers and preparation for the citizenship exam. Sacred Heart is known as a safe place with effective programs and caring staff concerned about both documented and undocumented people.
The center recently received a $1.5 million gift that will serve as an endowment to generate funds for the parish’s education services.
As pastor, Fr. Ron Gonzales brings a wealth of experience from his service in Jesuit parishes in Albuquerque and San Antonio. He does not want to rely only on older parishioners who have been the backbone of Sacred Heart. He hopes that a new retreat program that highlights service will spark involvement by newer parishioners and continue the parish’s legacy of innovation.