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  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph

    Father Dan St. Laurent talks with a member of St. Louis de Gonzague who he's known since he was a little boy during Sunday's Latin American Festival at St. Louis de Gonzague in Nashua.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph

    Father Dan St. Laurent laughs while walking away from a tent where mexican food was being served during Sunday afternoon's Latin American Festival at St. Louis de Gonzague in Nashua.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Leading Latinos: Nashua's Father Dan caters to the undocumented

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a five-day series of stories profiling leaders in Nashua’s Latino community.

The Rev. Daniel St. Laurent is referred to by friends and parishioners not only as Father Dan, but as Padre Daniel.

An admirer of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980 over siding with the country’s poor majority, St. Laurent isn’t afraid to stand up for the undocumented residents of Nashua.

On a warm weekday afternoon, the tree street reverend sat in his rectory sipping coffee, his cocker spaniel Buster panting at his side. Colorful Latino crosses adorned his walls, alongside a black and white photo of an Indian girl and a cracked clay figurine of Moses.

A trip to Mexico in 1979 heralded a turning point in his life, he said. He’d been invited to participate in a program to show foreigners “the Latin American reality.”

In Mexico, “I saw things that I had never seen before,” he said. “It was a husband and wife and three children. They had had six children but three had died from malnutrition. The oldest one, about 9, was blind because of malnutrition. The next two were twins, and the girl could not walk because her limbs were distorted and contorted.”

“They were sleeping on the patio, right outside the room where I was, and in the middle of the night, the little girl started crying, and it woke me up. It just haunted me for the longest time. It was almost like this prophetic cry, calling out into the night about the reality of the world.”

Now, St. Laurent estimates that 40 percent of the congregation where he is seated, at the St. Louis de Gonzague and Aloysious Church on East Hollis Street, is Latino.

The house of worship sits a few blocks from the Nayarit taco truck and from Nashua district court, the site of an ongoing round of immigration arrests that have activists alarmed.

The pastor often lends the church basement out to immigrants rights organizers. He sits in on the meetings regularly to offer his thoughts and experiences.

St. Laurent says it doesn’t matter to him whether his congregants have papers.

“Churches don’t have boundaries,” he said. “Nations have boundaries. So what am I gonna say? ‘You don’t have documents, you can’t come in?’ It makes absolutely no sense as far as church goes. We are called to welcome everyone.”

Some 20 years after his fateful trip to Mexico, St. Laurent would set up a similar program to implement what he refers to as “reverse missionary work.”

In the Olancho department of Honduras, he started Project Eden, an effort to combat malnutrition through community gardening projects.

Volunteers from colleges and church groups travel to Olancho each year to work with locals in planting trees and tending the gardens.

St. Laurent said it’s remarkable how many of his friends in Honduras have relatives in the United States, most of them without papers.

“What if tomorrow, all the undocumented workers went home?” he asked with irony. “What would happen?”

“People came to the U.S. from other places, at various times for various reasons, some because of religious persecution, some because of economic situation, political persecution, whatever. My basic premise is: no one wants to leave home. Who wants to leave their homeland and everything that’s familiar to them? No one. But they are in a sense forced to.”

St. Laurent’s views on immigration are in step with his diocese and even the Vatican. Bishop John McCormack of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester speaks of the American church as an immigrant institution. In a 2008 letter, McCormick reaffirmed the rights of undocumented immigrants, including the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.

Such support for immigrants isn’t the dominant mindset in the state’s current political climate. One bill currently under review states that New Hampshire fully supports Arizona’s controversial SB1070 immigration law, stating “the general court will pursue legislation to protect its citizens from undocumented immigrants.”

This comes in addition to a bill from Rep. William Infantine, R-Manchester, who owns an insurance company, seeking to strip the undocumented of their right to workman’s compensation benefits.

John Sousa is a Nashua tea party activist and a devout Catholic, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception across town.

He voiced the popular refrain that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, but like his Portuguese ancestors, the immigrants of today should come here legally.

“I understand the Catholic church’s stance on it, that we’re all humans on the face of this Earth and we should all be treated as humans, and I agree with that,” Sousa said. “But I also believe that we have a nation here of laws and if we do not enforce the laws of this nation, we become a lawless nation. And I don’t event think an illegal immigrant wants a lawless nation, they have that in northern Mexico right now.”

Sousa doesn’t want to see mass round-ups, but believes committing any crime other than illegal entry warrants deportation. He says that rather than confronting immigration head on, the government has turned its head, giving way to a subculture of illegal immigrants that threaten the American fabric.

“We have individuals who have no status in this nation because they are living outside the law by being here, therefore they can be exploited.”

St. Laurent believes addressing immigration in earnest will require a broader perspective than what is currently on display at the national level.

“People will continue to come from the south as long as they live in poverty,” he continued. “The question is: what are we doing to address the issue on the other side of the border? Until that question is answered, they’re gonna continue to come.”