Toribio watches over the migrant



I used to think that great churches were towers of Babel built to mesmerize the masses and gratify the powerful, when Jesus held the Last Supper in an upstairs apartment downtown. I would think Jesus would prefer we congregate in a gray steel building much like our office, with broken-down furniture and a sleeping dog. He walked with the dispossessed, after all.

Then there is St. Mary’s Church, designed to be spare and colorless but for the mind-boggling stained glass windows that are undoubtedly among Iowa’s greatest works of art (designed by Father Edward Catich of St. Ambrose University in Davenport).

Muted colors from an overcast late morning fell on rows of pews during the funeral Saturday of Mary Veehoff, mother of my high school chums Carolyn, Bonnie and Mike. They cast through images of Pope Pius, Thomas Aquinas, Francis and other pillars of the church to whom we were urged to pray. You can sit there and admire them as the organ plays a dirge and lose yourself amid the most familiar surroundings.

There my head swirled among the saints (Don Bosco is the patron of editors and pressman, and Clare the patroness of television, Francis of veterinarians) and, for some strange reason, I got stuck on St. Toribio Romo. He is the patron saint of immigrants in general and Mexican undocumenteds in particular.

Only the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe is more highly venerated among the Mexican people. His portrait hangs in Storm Lake homes, his image is in men’s wallets and women’s purses, and it hangs around their necks in itchy wool scapulas worn as plenary indulgences against punishment in the after-life.

Toribio is the protector.

He appears to Mexicans crossing the Sonoran desert in Arizona. He wears a cowboy hat and boots, sometimes has a red pickup truck, and ushers the lost immigrants to safe harbor. When they ask how they can thank him, the man tells them to go to Santa Ana de Guadalupe Church in Jalisco and ask the locals about Toribio Romo. The locals point to his portrait in the church, and the immigrant realizes it is the man from the desert.

That’s how the story goes.

Toribio was born in 1900 and executed by federal Mexican forces in the town of Tequila in 1928. The priest had refused government orders to quit preaching, and he celebrated Mass among thickets to hide. He was found in an abandoned tequila distillery, where he had set up a makeshift chapel and shot to death as his sister cried out. He was declared a saint in 2000, and his day is marked as May 25.

This man of the people was a playwright and social critic who urged his people of the Los Altos region near Guadalajara — Storm Lake’s sister city Ayotlan is in the same diocese — not to emgirate to El Norte but to stay and fight for freedom in Mexico. But he also acknowledged the long oppression of poor rural Mexicans.

“Hunger knows no borders,” Toribio said.

The stories of encounters are legion. He gives water or even money. He directs immigrants to places like Storm Lake where they can easily find employment. Sometimes, he appears at the border and tells boys to go home because their mothers are worried.

I don’t know any of these people, but they are all around us. I want to hear their stories, but understandably they are not advertised.

They pray to St. Toribio for the safety of their families back in Jalisco, where the drug cartels run strong. They pray for safety in their new country. They pray for safe passage for other immigrants. Last July, the curator of a wooden statue of the saint, with relics of Toribio’s left ankle in it, urged thousands of venerators in Los Agneles to pray for comprehensive immigration reform. The Mexican priest especially urged Angelinos to pray for refugees from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who are fleeing drug cartels and government death squads.

Mary Veehoff’s parents emigrated from the war-torn Ukraine to Saskatchewan with one child around the turn of the century. They started on another 12 children living in a sod hut trying to raise wheat in true subsistence style. Mary eventually moved to British Columbia and ultimately emigrated to the United States where she wed Bernie Veehoff of Storm Lake.

The daughter of immigrants became an emigrant herself.

So, yes, her son Mike said. Mary had a soft-spot for the downtrodden but especially the immigrant. She grew up knowing how to speak only Ukrainian until she got to school. The story of the El Salvadoran is her story, it’s just that she came out of the North and not the South.

I became familiar with St. Toribio when I watched people about to head for the United States crawling on hands and knees to his shrine about 100 miles from Ayotlan. That line has become smaller over the past 15 years as immigration to the United States has all but stopped, I suppose. I have no clue how St. Thomas Aquinas got me thinking about him.

But I thought I should say something. It’s weird, I know, but I think Mary Veehoff wanted me to say something.

What, I am not certain.

That it is a sin to build walls between people?

That people living in the shadows right here in Storm Lake deserve freedom some day?

That religion and government are a deadly mix, and that the First Amendment is the most powerful sentence in contemporary global politics?

Maybe just that hunger knows no borders. Maybe that’s it.