WASHINGTON. Workers today can look to holy men and women of the past for comfort in knowing that someone in heaven knows what they’re going through in their job, said the spiritual moderator of the Catholic Labor Network in an online Labor Day Mass Sept. 5.
“There are many servants of God, venerables, blesseds and saints who know your work, they know your struggle, they know your pain, and also they know your craft and, by your labor, know your cooperation in God’s ongoing creation,” said Father Sinclair Oubre, a priest of the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, and a member of the Seafarers’ Union.
“If you are a domestic in a home or a housekeeper in a hotel or hospital, call on Servant of God Julia Greeley, who was born into slavery at Hannibal, Missouri, and worked as a domestic in Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. She knew well the difficulty of work, but also the reward to assisting families she loved,” Father Oubre said in his homily.
“If you are a beautician or a hairdresser, call upon Venerable Pierre Toussaint. A Haitian American and former slave, who became renowned in New York for his skills and for his great philanthropic generosity,” he added. “He knew well the despair and the suffering which his clients carried in their hearts, but also how to bring out the hidden beauty of every person.”
He continued: “If you are a merchant mariner, call on Servant of God Captain Leonard La Rue, who rescued 14,000 North Korean refugees in 1950 and spent the next 48 years as a Benedictine monk and moved to Paterson, New Jersey. He knew well the might and terror of the sea, but also how God carries mariners and their ships in the palm of his hand.”
Father Oubre had a host of other suggestions: St. Isidore for farmworkers, Blessed Franz Jagerstatter for farmers, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for teachers, Blessed Julia Belanger for music teachers, St. Clement Mary Hofbauer for bakers, Venerable Matt Talbot for construction workers and Blessed Nikolaus Gross for miners.
For Father Oubre nearly 30 years ago, though, there was no patron saint for labor priests. In the spring of 1995, a union delegation from Illinois came to Port Arthur, Texas, and showed a video of a sit-down demonstration in front of a Staley cornstarch and soybean processing plant in Decatur, Illinois. Captured on the video was the police pepper-spraying of a priest sitting with the workers at the plant gates, Father Martin Mangan.
That summer, after completing some work on his canon law license at The Catholic University of America in Washington, Father Oubre asked Father Mangan if he could drive to Decatur to visit while en route from D.C. to Texas. Father Oubre said his goal was to ask Father Mangan, “How do you do ‘labor priest’?”
But at dinner that evening, “before I got the question out of my mouth, Father Martin looked me in the eye and asked, ‘How do you do “labor priest?’”
“It was immediately apparent that he was making it up on the fly just like I was in Southeast Texas,” Father Oubre said.
In more recent years, the Catholic Labor Network has conducted programs for clergy on how to fill the role of labor priest.
Father Oubre celebrated the Mass from the Port Arthur International Seafarers Chapel in Port Arthur. He noted that Deacon Ivan Watson, who assisted him during the Mass, had been locked out of his job for 10 months in 2021 and this year by ExxonMobil in a contract dispute with the United Steelworkers of America at the energy giant’s refinery in Beaumont.
One of the general intercessions at the Mass, which used the Roman Missal’s Mass for the Sanctification of Human Labor, was for union leaders, both at the national and local level, to be “guided by the grace and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, that they may be servant leaders.”
Another intercession was for workers at the U.S. Senate cafeteria “as they seek just wages.” In the multi-sided dispute, the restaurant workers are represented by UNITE HERE and achieved a first contract with Restaurant Associates, which was awarded the cafeteria contract from the Architect of the Capitol.
But the Senate has already had to make one infusion of funds to cover its costs as cafeteria business lags well behind pre-pandemic levels. Seventeen workers and one House member were arrested in a July demonstration outside the Capitol, Restaurant Associates has sent at least two layoff notices to cafeteria workers only to walk them back, and its managerial contract ends in December.