The Colony: walking together as children of God

A client receives a hamper. (Photo submitted by Paul and Ely Wheeler)

Terrible poverty and great faith experienced in poor area on the outskirts of Aguascalientes, Mexico:

By Paul Wheeler, St. Augustine Parish, Saskatoon

The neighborhood of Vincente Guererro, also called La Colonia (the Colony), didn’t exist until about 20 years ago. At that time, it was an unwanted piece of land on the outskirts of the city of Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Unwanted because agriculture wasn’t really possible on this rocky piece of land and also because it would tend to flash flood, when the rains were heavy, it became ‘squatter’s land’, attracting the very poor. Flimsy houses quickly sprang up, built by the residents, made of whatever cheap or free materials were available – bricks, plastic sheeting, even cardboard.

My wife, Ely, is from Aguascalientes. This is where we met over 10 years ago. At that time, Ely was the director of social services for the area, including the Colony. She could often be seen driving in the area in her little Ford, full of blankets, food hampers, or whatever she could afford or could get donated, to give to the residents.

Ely Wheeler with former scholarship student Jazmine and her mom. Photo submitted by Paul and Ely Wheeler)

We met taking online language courses (Ely taking English, me in Spanish). After meeting and deciding to marry, she moved to Saskatoon with me. Since that time, 10 years ago, we have continued to spend a couple of months a year in Aguascalientes to visit family and to do what we can for the Colony.

Poverty in the Colony is terrible. The dwellings in this area are often in poor repair, lacking flooring and, in some instances, roofing. It is not uncommon for a small 800-square-foot house to have 7 to 10 persons squeezed into that space.

Those who are fortunate enough to work will often bring in no more that 800 to 1,200 pesos ($65 to $100 Canadian) per week. (One of our friends, Sophia, works as a street cleaner for the municipality in the morning, but also sells candies from her home to make payments on the refrigerator she purchased). Prices in general are a little less expensive than in Canada, but not that much – the wages often barely cover food. And, of course, with poverty comes crime and drug problems.

The one thing that unites the residents of the Colony, and brings some relief to the daily struggle is their Catholic faith.

Jesus de Nazaeth Parish (Photo submitted by Paul and Ely Wheeler).

The neighborhood parish, Jésus de Nazareth, sits right in the center of the Colony like a lighthouse for the faithful. A very modest church, by Mexican or Canadian standards, the faithful gather for Mass, which is celebrated twice a day. Recently, the 2019 First Communion celebration took place with 180 children enrolled (a usual number each year, I am told!).

Ely and I try to come up with a ‘project’ each year, depending on the greatest needs in the Colony. In addition to our own resources for these projects, we have been blessed to have received donations from the Viscount, Saskatchewan Knights of Columbus and from occasional fund raising events in Canada. We also try to tie in our projects with the Jésus de Nazareth parish and the priest, Father Fernando, when possible, as they have a better idea of those who are really in need.

In past years, the projects have included scholarships for Colony teens at the local technical training college to continue with their education, the purchase of school supplies for the parents and their children at the elementary school, or the purchase of medicines for seniors. Some years (like this year) it is a simple distribution of food and household good items to the families in most need.

We also try to raise awareness, both in Canada and in Mexico, of each other and our common bond of all being children of God and our shared Catholicism.

It is easy to look at those outside our borders in an “us versus them” context, such as is often the case with refugees and migrants. Indeed, many of our politicians promote this view. However, Jesus taught us that we are all brothers and sisters and that to “love your neighbor” is of absolute importance.

Whether it is the poor person in Mexico, or the poor person in Saskatoon, poverty is one of those areas of Catholic social justice where each of us can make a difference.