December 22, 2017

Local parishioners provide ‘Feliz Navidad’ for displaced Puerto Rican families

Story and photos by Kathleen Harrington


WESTFIELD — Christmas was in the air Thursday night as families trickled into the parish center at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish for a pre-holiday party.

Transported in groups on board the St. Mary Parish school bus, the displaced families from Puerto Rico were greeted by Elves, Mrs. Claus, and Rudolph as they arrived for their weekly community dinner. Pernil (shredded pork), pasteles, pan sobao (sweet bread), and pan criollo (Puerto Rican bread)  awaited on the serving table and their aromas filled the big room where festively decorated tables were set for dinner.

Organized by a group of women from St. Mary Parish, the night was designed to brighten the spirits of the families struggling to rebuild their lives in Westfield. As the lights in the center dimmed, the volunteers, including the team from St. Mary’s and Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, carried candles and formed a circle of light around the tables. “Tierra del Gigante” (Land of the Giant), a musical tribute to Puerto Rico and the spiritual strength of its residents, played on a screen.

“With God’s strength, Puerto Rico will rise again,” said Yolanda Mendez, translating the lyrics.   “They know the song because they can hear it on the internet. Here, there aren’t many Spanish radio stations for them to hear it.”

Talking in the busy kitchen while a team of helpers refilled the serving pans with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and plated desserts, Mendez said she expected all the families living at the Quality Inn to join the weekly dinner. Several dozen people from the Spanish-speaking community joined the families. They arrived carrying homemade flan de coco (coconut custard in carmel) and budin de coco (coconut bread pudding).

Six-month-old Sophia, her parents and her grandparents enjoyed the Christmas songs by Judy and Ariana Brandt as they ate. The family is waiting for permanent housing. But the special night was meant to be a bright moment in a tense time of transition.

Nearby, Lizmarie was taking photographs with her early Christmas present from her husband, Raul. For her 8-year-old son, Elimelic, and 6-year-old daughter, Adriana, this was noisy playtime with friends.

“We’re happy to open the parish center,” said Father Daniel Pacholec, pastor of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. “The women from St. Mary’s planned everything. They worked all week to make this Christmas party special.” Father Pacholec calls the group “an army of angels.” With a list of the children’s names and ages, they stuffed backpacks with wrapped presents for Santa Claus to distribute.

Before Santa’s arrival, Soul Motive, a musical group from St. Mary Parish, entertained. “We are very lively when we celebrate,” exclaimed Zoria Santos, a member of the team from St. Mary’s. “This is exactly what we planned.”

It was a blessing to serve, said Judy Brandt. “As active members of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, it’s a blessing and an honor. When Yolanda called and asked for help, of course we said yes. Tonight is a good way for the families to get a break.”

The families living at the Quality Inn are working hard to find work, a place to live, and to adjust to a new area, said Santos. She said some families have found housing, but there are people who are new since last Thursday’s community dinner.

Children playing near the doors were first to spot Santa Claus as he entered the room. Making his way through the tables, children excitedly ran to meet him and follow him to his chair. Sitting in a circle in front of Santa, he urged them to be patient for their presents. Elves sprang into action handing the individually named backpacks over to Santa. As he called out names, children ran forward.

“It looks like Christmas morning,” said one of the volunteers. Screams of delight filled the big room as the children created piles of torn wrapping paper. Baby dolls, Legos, Playdoh, games and candy were pulled from the bulging backpacks. Santa even had gifts for the middle and high school students.

As the evening wound down, the families packed up their Christmas treasures and to-go containers of food and returned to the hotel.

“Tonight is nice food and good company. They will never forget what they’ve been through, but this is a night to enjoy each other’s company,” said Brandt.