What’s a priest to do when his flock is unfree? Fr. John F. Godfrey, a mid-twentieth century priest at Ascension Catholic Church in Chesterfield, Missouri, ministered to farmworkers at the Hellwig Brothers’ Farm. During World War II, the Hellwigs and other American growers limited farmworkers’ mobility. Growers drew these laborers from Latinx migrants on H2 Visas and Bracero program contracts, Japanese Americans who had been removed from the West Coast and incarcerated in camps, and European war prisoners. Growers maintained power over wartime laborers through federal contracts, martial enclosures, and long hours, and the Hellwigs continued to subordinate Latinx and African American farmworkers through poor housing and hours into the 1970s. Fr. Godfrey challenged these inequities publicly, tirelessly, for nearly fifteen years until his death in 1965. Why, then, did the farm remain unfree?
While recognizing farmworkers’ humanity, Fr. Godfrey’s work was informed by contemporary ideas about race. Godfrey infantilized Latinx laborers, framing farmworkers as collectively childlike, innocent, and susceptible to external exploitation. Godfrey’s combination of Catholic paternalism with midcentury racial stereotypes made his ministry a flawed instrument; indeed, the priest effectively reproduced the agricultural power relations he worked against. But Godfrey did create alternate spaces where migrants could air grievances, encounter healing, and experience belonging beyond the farm.
Ascension Catholic Church’s wartime congregation was growing. In 1943, the Hellwig Brothers’ Farm employed Latinx migrants—privately contracted from the Texas borderlands, outside the Bracero program—and Japanese Americans from the War Relocation Authority’s Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas. These laborers, including many Catholics, lived and worked within Ascension’s parochial boundaries but drew no ministries from Fr. Godfrey in the 1940s. The Hellwigs also contracted with the War Department to hold German and Italian soldiers, captured during North African campaigns, who would then work Hellwig’s cantaloupe and spinach fields between 1943 and 1945. Fr. Godfrey consistently encouraged these men to worship with his small parish on Sundays. The priest wanted to grow his rural parish, but the Archdiocese of St. Louis did not racially integrate until 1947. While Latinx migrants and Japanese Americans occupied an ambiguous place in American racial politics, Godfrey shied from ecclesial conflict and cooperated with foreign white soldiers instead.[ref]Robert A. Clavenna, “I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In,” St. Louis Review, December 12, 1958, 13; see also Dick Demco, “A Brief History of Ascension Parish,” edited by Ascension Parish, 1997.[/ref]
After World War II—when the Europeans left, Japanese Americans returned home, and Archbishop Ritter integrated St. Louis parishes—Fr. Godfrey experimented by inviting Latinx migrants to Sunday Mass in the early 1950s. These were the same migrants who the Hellwigs hired during World War II; they remembered being excluded from church grounds and being snubbed by Godfrey. The migrant community warily declined.
But Fr. Godfrey was not easily dissuaded and took a personal interest in migrant outreach. He visited the Hellwig farm in 1951, propped sacramentals in vegetable-sorting sheds, and prayed.
Godfrey’s ensuing ministries were empathetic. Margarito Rodriguez, a Mexican migrant contracted by the Hellwigs through the Bracero program in the late 1950s, reminisced that “Padre Godfrey was nice to everybody.” More than friendly, however, Godfrey’s ministry changed Rodriguez’s life. In the early 1960s, the Rodriguez family faced a choice: to buy a repossessed house or return to Mexico. “It was something foreign to him, to some extent,” explained Margarito’s son, Ricardo, “because [Margarito’s] ambition at the time was to save up and go back … to buy a cattle ranch.” Uncertain, the family consulted Fr. Godfrey. The priest personally walked Margarito through his finances, the Rodriguezes bought the house, and “that’s probably why we stayed!” Ricardo mused. [ref]Margarito and Ricardo Rodriguez, interview by author, St. Charles, Missouri, September 28, 2018.[/ref] Godfrey similarly provided guidance and welcome to the broader Latinx community in Chesterfield. By hosting public festivals for Our Lady of Guadalupe, developing catechesis with Spanish-language translators, and attending national Catholic migrant ministry conferences, Godfrey accommodated migrant Latinx families at Ascension. [ref]John F. Godfrey, “El Pequeño Voz,” ed. by Ascension Parish, Chesterfield, Missouri, 1955, RG4c5.2, Ascension (Chesterfield) Correspondence (1941-1988), Archdiocesan Archives at Archdiocese of St. Louis, St. Louis, MO, henceforth Archdiocesan Ascension Correspondences; John F. Godfrey, July 15, 1956; William M. Drumm, July 17, 1956, Archdiocesan Ascension Correspondences.[/ref] And by doing farm outreach, Godfrey tried to make migrants’ experience of agriculture more than sweat, toil, and restriction. Farm spaces could also incorporate holiness and community. [ref]John F. Godfrey, April 25, 1951, Archdiocesan Ascension Correspondences.[/ref]
Empathy did not, of course, displace his paternalism. Writing the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a television program’s depiction of migrants in 1956, Fr. Godfrey observed “It was so true to life and pictured the Mexican farm worker for what he is, a child-like simple family man, instead of what he is so often represented by those who exploit him.” [ref]John F. Godfrey, “Enjoyed the ‘Stage 7’ Play Called …” Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, December 23, 1956, 8.[/ref] Godfrey wrote sincerely but reified power relations between the farm, church, and laborers by reducing migrants to docile children who required paternal guides. [ref]Godfrey, “El Pequeño Voz”; John F. Godfrey, July 15, 1956, Archdiocesan Ascension Correspondences; William M. Drumm, July 17, 1956, Archdiocesan Ascension Correspondences; Clavenna, “I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In.”[/ref] And the priest did guide by remaining the leader and face of Ascension, organizing festivals, catechesis, and committees himself rather than opening the church to Latinx leadership. [ref]Godfrey, “El Pequeño Voz”; Clavenna, “I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In;” “Chesterfield Case Is Example: Mexican Farm Labor Treated Worse Than Prisoners of War,” St. Louis Review, September 24, 1954, Newspaper Envelope, Archdiocesan Archives at Archdiocese of St. Louis, St. Louis, MO.[/ref]
Fr. Godfrey’s words also exposed paternalism’s limits. In 1954, Godfrey wrote that a Mexican boy collapsed working “16 hours a day, seven days a week, for six weeks” on a farm, and condemned the employers as morally culpable. [ref]”Chesterfield Case Is Example.”[/ref] Protesting child labor was admirable, but moral protest did not alter cantaloupe fields, change farmers’ hiring habits, or prevent the boy from further toil. Godfrey could create alternate spaces on church grounds and alternate interpretations of the farm, but the Hellwigs’ tangible operations lay beyond his grasp.
Migrant ministries disappeared from Archdiocesan records after the Bracero program’s termination in 1964 and Fr. Godfrey’s death in 1965. African American labor sustained Hellwig operations into the 1980s. Farm barracks crumbled and farm holy spaces faded. The parish retains a living memory of migrant outreach and a plaque affixed to the old Ascension Church stucco dedicates the building to Fr. Godfrey’s memory. But the segregation that dominated the church in the 1940s and the priest’s infantilizing attitude toward his Spanish-speaking flock are forgotten.
Godfrey fought inequities with warped tools. He wanted better lives for his marginalized neighbors while he and the Church remained enmeshed in midcentury racial biases. All such tools are thus culturally conditioned and often found wanting—ours may be too, one day. But some of Godfrey’s qualities — his tireless empathy, his relentless energy for equity, deserve emulation.