National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

Diocese, union settlement reinstates parish workers


After two months of upheaval following the firing of four unionized parish workers in McAllen, Texas, an agreement reached in mediation between the union and the Brownsville diocese has fully reinstated the four women who had lost their jobs. The terms also include the development of a diocesan-wide grievance procedure for terminated workers.

Other issues remain unresolved: The diocese said it would seek advice from “the higher church authorities” on the legitimacy of the union contracts at Holy Spirit Parish and four other parishes in the diocese.

And while parish council president Dora Saavedra said Holy Spirit parishioners are “happy with the settlement,” she said it takes them just “two-thirds of the way to restoring our parish. We’re concerned because we still need a permanent pastor named.”

   -- NCR Photo/T Malcolm
The establishment of a grievance process will 'make sure no other diocesan employees will have to go through what we've gone through.' -- Anne Cass

The dispute began June 18, when new pastor Fr. Ruben Delgado arrived on his first day accompanied by diocesan officials, who dismissed pastoral associate Anne Cass, sacristan Rosario “Chayo” Vaello, coordinator of family ministry/director of religious education Martha Sanchez, and secretary Edna Cantú (NCR, Aug. 1). All four women are members of the United Farm Workers union under a contract signed by the previous pastor, Fr. Jerry Frank. While many Catholics believed that Brownsville Bishop Raymundo Peña ordered the firings, Peña said that Delgado -- who resigned within a week, never having said Mass at Holy Spirit -- made the decisions on his own.

The UFW filed a breach of contract suit on the women’s behalf, charging that they were fired without due process. Meanwhile, many Holy Spirit parishioners rose up in protest, including holding separate Communion services for several weeks until the diocese agreed to mediation.

The terms of the settlement, signed Aug. 18, include:

  • The diocese and the union are to negotiate a diocesan-wide grievance procedure for terminated workers. As part of the grievance procedure, a newly assigned pastor or parish administrator cannot fire a parish worker during the first 90 days after assuming duties at the church, excepting cases of “egregious conduct” by the employee.
  • The terms of the union contract for Holy Spirit will remain in force pending resolution of the validity of the contracts there and at four other parishes. “We will be seeking [advice] from the higher church authorities,” such as the papal nuncio in Washington or at the Vatican, said David Garza, attorney for the diocese. At issue is whether the pastors had the authority, without approval from the bishop, to sign contracts. UFW officials contend that the bishop was informed in writing about the union organizing and that Peña responded that the pastor was the employer who could sign the contracts.
  • Back pay and lost medical benefits will be paid to Cantú and another former employee of Sacred Heart Parish in Hidalgo. Both lost their union jobs there last year with the arrival of a new pastor.

“We feel satisfied with what we got,” Cass told NCR. In particular, she said, the establishment of a grievance process will “make sure no other diocesan employees will have to go through what we’ve gone through.”

Cass praised the support she and her fellow workers received from Holy Spirit parishioners. “The community has just been tireless,” she said. “It’s been amazing. If we’d just get a new pastor in here who is pastoral, we’ll just come back even stronger.”

Peña has appointed Jesuit Fr. Brian Van Hove as temporary parish administrator.

Saavedra told NCR that the parish council is still waiting for a response from Peña to a request to meet with him, “so that the healing process can proceed. So far I think the diocese has complied with the letter of the agreement, but we would like them to comply with the spirit of the agreement.”

Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer/reporter. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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