Juanita Constante fronts a display of family photos.
Clarice Keating Of the Catholic Sentinel
When Father Frank Knusel began ministering to many of the longtime migrant farming community members, they had just arrived to Oregon as teens.
“And I wasn’t much older than them,” reminisced the priest. Today, those children are in their 60s, but Father Knusel still remembers the confirmations and first Communions — and he remembers how hard parents worked so their children could rise above the migrant farming life.
“They often developed disabilities from all of that backbreaking work, their health was just destroyed,” Father Knusel said. He remembers one woman who wanted to learn English badly, but it was hard when she was always exhausted from field labor and had so little spare time. But she learned the term, “Oh really?” and said the phrase all the time — especially when it had no place in the conversation.
Father Knusel was invited to the front of the room at the Pioneros reunion for an invocation. Organizer Miguel Salinas recognized the Spanish-speaking priest as one of several Religious who have long been friends and supporters of the Marion County’s migrant farming community.
As a young seminarian, Father Knusel had always loved languages – he grew up speaking German and English at home. So when he entered Mount Angel in 1969, he tagged along with the seminarians from Mexico so he could practice Spanish. They welcomed him, even inviting him to their homes during school breaks. Although, Father Knusel acknowledges today, it probably didn’t hurt that he was the only one with a car who was willing to drive his classmates back to Mexico City.
When he was ordained in the early in 1970s, there was a growing need for Spanish speaking priests, so Father Knusel was assigned to parishes with large migrant populations. He followed in the footsteps of priests like Father Frank Kennard, who helped Hispanic laborers in Dayton start the San Martin de Porres Mission, and the Archdiocese of Portland’s first priest from Mexico, Father Ernesto Bravo. They were all leaders in the Catholic churches that became social hubs of the area’s growing Mexican-American community. Religious in the archdiocese were also among the first to begin advocating for the migrant farm workers, establishing the Catholic Migrant Ministry Office in 1955.
“Their spiritual home was their home in a way,” said Father Knusel. “It gave them strength to deal with struggles, like low wages and bad working conditions. Most of them worked in the fields, but they were always trying to get out.”