Labor Priest Celebrates Workers Memorial Day Mass in Maryland

By Mark Pattison for the Catholic Labor Network

They came by the hundreds for Mass. That’s fairly typical on a Sunday morning. But a Thursday afternoon at 5 p.m.?

It was Workers Memorial Day.

Hundreds of union members and apprentices in the construction trades, along with members of other unions and some government officials and elected representatives, came to St. Camillus Church in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md., for the annual Workers Memorial Day Mass.

Franciscan Fr. Brian Jordan, the pastor, twice before Mass warned congregants not to sit in the back pews, because for those who remain there, he joked, “there’ll be a double collection.” For the entrance procession and for many parts of the Mass, Fr. Jordan donned a hard hat with a cross on the front.

But the real focus of the Mass were the 20 chairs arrayed at the front of the sanctuary. Each had a black covering draped around it, and on the seat was a white hard hat and a single rose. They represented the 19 workers killed on the job in Maryland in the past year. The 20th, Fr. Jordan said, was for the workers who died on the job but whose employer never reported the death and did away with the body – an undignified end, he noted, but “it happens, folks.”

At the end of the entrance procession, Fr. Jordan swung a thurifer and incensed each of the seats. Incense, he explained, is a sign of reverence. “Life is precious. Life is sacred,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re union or nonunion. All life is sacred. And we’re all equal in death.”

Of the 19 killed, Fr. Jordan said, 14 were Latino. And of those 14, six of them were filling potholes on the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore March 26 when the cargo vessel Dali, adrift without power, rammed into a pier of the bridge, sending it collapsing into the Patapsco River – and the six immigrant workers to their deaths. (Two others survived.)

Sidney Bonilla, assistant business manager of Steamfitters Local 602, read the names of the 19 workers. Following each name, as in years past at St. Camillus, a bell on the opposite side of the sanctuary tolled. At last year’s Workers Memorial Day Mass, there were 40 deaths in Maryland to mourn, including six other road workers who were hit on Interstate 695, the Baltimore Beltway.

In his homily, Fr. Jordan said the workers who died had one basic goal: “to do their job and to come home to their families.” The immigrant workers, he added, wanted to share in the American dream.

“This is a land of opportunity, a land of love,” Fr. Jordan said, although every immigrant group has faced obstacles. “My Irish ancestors couldn’t get decent jobs: No Irish need apply,” he added. “Jews were told you can’t work here. African American were told you can’t vote.” One unwelcome consequence of this is that “the old oppressed becomes the new oppressor. We can’t have that.”

In remarks after Communion on the dignity of labor, Portia Wu, Maryland’s secretary of labor, said that every day since the bridge collapse, state officials have been meeting with different groups on recovery and restoration efforts. The deceased workers, she added, always get mentioned at the start of each meeting. “Can we pray for them?” is the suggestion made.

Construction workers make up only 5% of the workforce, Wu said, but 33% of all on-the-job deaths.

The AFL-CIO issued a report, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, April 25. It reported that during 2022, the last year for which complete statistics were available, 5,486 workers were killed on the job in the United States; 344 workers died each day from hazardous working conditions, and 120,000 die each year from occupational diseases; Black and Latino workers die at a higher rate, and that rate is increasing; 43 workers died from heat on the job (Texas’ legislature passed a law last year banning municipal ordinances mandating head mitigation measures); workplace homicides and workplace suicides increased 9% and 13%, respectively, from 2021 levels; and repetitive motion injuries account for 28% of all serious work-related injuries and illnesses in private industry.

Apprentices accounted for a significant share of the assembly at Mass. Bonilla credits it to numbers. “We have a thousand apprentices” in Steamfitters Local 602. Otis Biggs, a business agent for the local, says union democracy plays a part, too.

“They go to classes” as part of their apprenticeship, Biggs said. Steamfitters explain what the Mass is about, and the apprentices in each class take a vote. “If they vote to come, they come here,” he added. He called it a fine way for the apprentices to “support the union – and the church.”

Although Workers Memorial Day is officially April 28 – the first such observance was in 1989, 35 years ago – the St. Camillus Mass was April 25 because April 28 fell on a Sunday. It was the fourth such Mass at St. Camillus.

Asked after the Mass why he hosts the Mass year after year, Fr. Jordan, in his Brooklyn accent, replied that he was in New York City during the 9/11 terror attacks. “The police department had a chaplain, the first department had a chaplain. But the construction workers, who were more than anybody else there, didn’t have a chaplain,” he said. He became their chaplain and has been a “labor priest” ever since.

St. Camillus also hosts an annual Labor Day Mass, which will take place this year Wednesday, Aug. 28. Maryland Gov. Wes Moore was at last year’s Mass, Fr. Jordan said, and pledged then to speak at this year’s.