Bishop John Nevins has passed away, but his commitment to social justice and to the struggle of farmworkers in Immokalee will stand as an example for religious leaders for generations to come.
He marched with us.
He called on growers to join in dialogue with us.
He called on corporations to sign Fair Food agreements with us.
And when six CIW members broke their 30-day hunger strike in 1997, he held a mass in Naples to celebrate their courageous stand and broke the fast with us. The first food the hunger strikers ate after 30 days was the host from his hand.
He stood with us from the earliest days of our organizing and he never wavered, choosing to spend his last day on the job before his retirement as bishop in Immokalee with us at the dedication of the CIW’s new community center.
He was always with us, and now he isn’t.
Bishop John J. Nevins passed away last week at 82, but he will remain with us, in our hearts and in our memories, forever.
The son of Irish immigrants
The very first time we met Bishop Nevins, he shared a personal story from his family’s history with us, a story that linked him to the community in Immokalee through the bonds of shared experience. His mother, shortly after escaping poverty in Ireland and arriving in the United States in search of a better life, applied for a job as a housekeeper. She was turned away because she was Irish, and because she was Catholic.
Undaunted by that first bitter taste of the discrimination that all too many immigrants face, his mother persevered until she found a job, and her hard work allowed her to send her son to school and, eventually, into the priesthood. His mother’s experience provided Bishop Nevins with enduring lessons about the intrinsic dignity of physical labor, and the inherent worth of every human being. And when he became a priest, his mother asked that he promise her one thing — to “always take care of the immigrants, because they will always need your help.“
He never let his mother down.
Bishop Nevins’ love for the Immokalee community was as deep as it was abiding. He recognized in the CIW the same spirit of hope and struggle that he saw in his mother, and that personal affinity ensured that the bond between workers in Immokalee and their bishop was unconditional.
He made it his job to reach out both to the farmworker community, and, most importantly, on behalf of the farmworker community, appealing to food industry companies, religious leaders, and his own church members to value the farmworkers’ hard work and embrace the CIW’s call for dignity and fundamental human rights. As he told the Naples Daily News in 2007:
“I have followed (the coalition) very closely from the beginning,” Nevins said. “I am worried for them. I know their needs, and they need dignity.” read more
Hearts filled with sadness…
After more than a decade of unwavering support for our work, Bishop Nevins retired in 2007, still three years before the Campaign for Fair Food finally turned the corner with the launch of the Fair Food Program in 2010. Shortly after retiring and traveling for some time to visit his beloved Ireland, Bishop Nevins returned to Venice to live out his years in the diocese of which he was the first bishop and that he served for more than two decades. And though his final years were a difficult struggle with a progressive illness that would ultimately take him from us, Bishop Nevins knew of the momentous victory in 2010, when more than 90% of Florida’s tomato growers joined the Fair Food Program, and of the unprecedented progress for farmworkers’ rights — and dignity — ever since. He left us knowing that his tireless efforts on behalf of farmworkers were not in vain, and that he was an invaluable pioneer in what today has been called “one of the greatest human rights success stories of our day.“
We wrote to Bishop Dewane, the bishop of our diocese today, this note of condolence on Bishop Nevins’ passing:
Dear Bishop Dewane,On behalf of the members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and our community we would like to express our deepest condolences for the passing of our dear Bishop Nevins. For us he was always one of the greatest supporters of our goal to improve the conditions in the fields of Florida. The news of his passing has filled our hearts with sadness. We have lost not only a great leader of our church, but even more we have lost a beloved friend. We can only imagine how you and all in the Diocese must feel with this loss. We are lost for words that could help ease the pain right now, but the knowledge that he is in good hands and looking down on us from God’s side and remembering us as he always remembered the neediest in the community.May our friend Bishop Nevins rest in peace as we continue his work here on earth.Our most sincere condolences,The Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers