NEW YORK — For the first time since the start of the pandemic, Father Franciscus Asisi Eka Yuantoro was welcomed earlier this month into a government facility for unaccompanied minors in Donna, Texas, to celebrate Mass, which he called a “blessing.”
“The moment that I am able to be with them, it’s special for the children who suffer with anxiety in difficult situations, difficult moments,” Father Yuantoro told The Tablet. “I’m very happy for this moment with the children to pray and to talk together with them and celebrate Mass and support them.”
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Father Yuantoro is pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church, which serves about 3,000 Catholic families — part of a total population of around 16,500 — in the south Texas city. Nearby he also has a chapel. And that chapel is only a few minutes from a U.S. government facility for unaccompanied minors that cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
The priest was first welcomed to the facility to lead Mass on the first Sunday of the month, June 6. That day he led two Masses in the afternoon that each had about 300 children. The majority of the children, Father Yuantoro said, were from Guatemala. Others were mostly from Honduras and El Salvador, with some traveling from Ecuador, Panama, and Cuba.
From his experience at the Mass and conversations with the children afterward, he described them as devout Catholics that are “hungry” to celebrate their faith.
“The children were very happy to have Mass and to pray together because they’re hungry for that,” Father Yuantoro said. “They’re hungry for the spirit. They’re hungry to have somebody to support a spiritual side and they want to know God and to continue.”
The priest said Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, accompanied him to the facility, and together they were able to “help the children understand the situation and how to pray.”
Sister Norma visited the facility with Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville at the end of April. At the time, Sister Norma said the facility was approaching its 1,500-person capacity; however, she said the conditions were “very good,” and the facility was large and spacious.
Father Yuantoro echoed those sentiments. He said the facility still follows COVID-19 protocols of masks and social distancing. He also remembers speaking with a 16-year-old boy from Honduras who feels more comfortable at the facility than in his home country in part because it provides clothes and an opportunity to learn.
“He was excited to come here to get a better life because of the situation in his country and he was afraid if they would make it and what the situation is but finally to end up here he feels a lot more comfortable in here because they provide everything,” Father Yuantoro said.
Later on, the priest added, the same boy asked him for a blessing for him and his family because of the situation of his family still in Honduras.
In recent months, other Catholic leaders have celebrated Mass for the unaccompanied minors housed in facilities in Texas and California as well. According to its website, between Oct. 1, 2020, and June 3, 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection had encountered 78,513 unaccompanied/single minors.
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso told a group of over 20 Catholic bishops from the U.S., Mexico and Central America gathered for an emergency immigration summit earlier this month about his experience celebrating Mass for unaccompanied minors almost every week since Easter.
“You see the children wearing their masks day and night, walking in long lines along dusty desert pathways, hundreds and hundreds of kids, most of whom carry trauma from the communities they just completed,” Bishop Seitz said. “No staff is allowed to do more than a fist bump with the kids who need a hug in the worst way.”
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego told The Tablet after he led Mass for 1,500 girls and young women at the San Diego Convention Center that part of what makes the situation “tremendously sad” is the fact that they ask questions that couldn’t be answered.
“Am I going to find a home here? Am I going to be able to get to my relatives? All of these different things, which are behind their coming,” Bishop McElroy previously told The Tablet.
Father Yuantoro said going forward it’s important for all leaders of the Church to recognize the importance of faith to many of the children that enter the country.
“The reality is the children are hungry for the spiritual side and we can really help their faith,” the priest told The Tablet.