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Farm worker movement mourns beloved former UFW chaplain Rev. Ken Irrgang

Photo shows Fr. Ken Irrgang holding the container of semita bread from which Ethel Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, presented the host to Cesar Chavez during the mass ending his 36-day fast over pesticides on Aug. 21, 1988, at the Forty Acres near Delano. Behind Fr. Ken is Cesar’s mother, Juana Chavez, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Photo © Victor Aleman; used with permission)

Of the priests who were United Farm Workers’ chaplains over the years, none served longer or with more commitment—and none was more beloved—than Rev. Kenneth E.  Irrgang. For 12 years, from 1977 to 1989, Father Ken worked with the movement at the National Chavez Center at La Paz in Keene, Calif. He celebrated Sunday masses and presided over countless baptisms, weddings, funerals, marches, union conventions and other special occasions. “The years of my involvement with migrant farm workers [were] the most meaningful years of my priesthood and, indeed, my entire life,” said Fr. Ken, who passed away on May 7 at age 89.

Growing up among the children of Latino migrant farm workers he befriended in Nicollet, in southern Minnesota, in the 1930s and ‘40s, Ken Irrgang gave little thought to their plight until 1968. That year he was ordained a priest and became active with the union’s grape strike and boycott. After two grape strikers were killed during a second grape strike in 1973, Father Ken travelled to the UFW La Paz headquarters in central California to hold Holy Week and Easter services.

He committed himself full-time service to the movement over 12 years before he reluctantly returned to his diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota in 1989. Fr. Ken worked in the UFW personnel office at La Paz, in union boycott offices in Boston and New York, and he wrote for both the English and Spanish editions of UFW publications.

But he will be remembered mostly for his ministry with the farm workers and the deep friendships that grew with Cesar Chavez and union members and staff across California, and especially among the roughly 250 people who lived and labored at any given time at the La Paz headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountain town of Keene southeast of Bakersfield.

Fr. Ken is fondly remembered during his dozen years at La Paz as a curmudgeonly bear with a big heart. He took great care with the liturgy, spending much time preparing his homilies, working with frequently novice guitar players to ensure adequate performance at mass and making sure the often makeshift alter set up in a conference room or on an outdoor table was a worthy reflection of the congregation’s faith and love of the Lord.

A memorable moment was the mass ending Cesar’s 36-day water-only fast over the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their children on August 21, 1988. The fast was painful and debilitating, and Cesar was so weak that two of his sons, Paul and Anthony, half carried him, one on each arm, into the mass. Thousands of farm workers and supporters stood silently under a huge tent erected to shield them from the hot sun at the movement’s Forty Acres property outside Delano. Also there were national labor leaders, Hollywood entertainment figures and members of the Kennedy family. Just as Senator Robert F. Kennedy had handed Cesar a small piece of semita bread to conclude his first public fast, of 25 day, over nonviolence in 1968, 20 years later RFK’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, did the same to end the ’88 fast.

There were a number of co-celebrants at the mass, Catholic clergy who outranked Fr. Ken. But Cesar asked Fr. Ken to preside as the main celebrant. Once Cesar returned to La Paz, he was still weak and initially didn’t attend community mass. So Fr. Ken went to his modest home to give him Holy Communion in brief private ceremonies. Fr. Ken told Cesar how honored and humbled he was to be chosen as the main celebrant of the end-of-fast mass in Delano. Cesar was not one to express sentiment. “To this day,” Fr. Ken wrote years later, “I recall his softly spoken ‘thank you,’ and the touching smile he managed to display. I was deeply moved.”

Five years later Fr. Ken returned to the Forty Acres near Delano. Then he was one of dozens of co-celebrants at the funeral mass for Cesar after he died in 1993, at age 66. This time about 45,000 attended the mass. Presiding was the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles. But the next day, when some 150 family and close friends gathered at La Paz for the private graveside ceremony, Cesar’s widow, Helen Chavez, asked Fr. Ken to officiate.

The entire La Paz community took part in an outdoor farewell party on the grounds of La Paz when Fr. Ken left the movement full time in 1989. He received two farewell gifts. One was a good-size bottle of “holy water”—gin. Everyone knew of Fr. Ken’s love of a good gin-and-tonic and martini. The other was a costly gold pocket watch and chain, given on behalf of the entire community. Fr. Ken was touched by the gifts, and by the genuine expressions of gratitude for his service.

Fr. Ken penned a letter he handed Cesar when they spoke about his returning to his diocese in Minnesota. “I loved [La Paz] and will miss everyone very much,” Fr. Ken wrote. “But more important than just my personal enjoyment, it was good to be part of a cause that is clearly a matter of social justice and central to the eventual establishing of Christ’s kingdom on earth.” Fr. Ken concluded, “May God bless you personally, Cesar, and all the people at La Paz and in the union, so that together you will be successful in bringing about justice for all farm workers.”

Until his death, Fr. Ken continued teaching English to immigrants and reading for the blind.

One of Cesar Chavez’s favorite Biblical passages was from the Book of Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” Those words apply describe the life and labors of Fr. Ken Irrgang.

Fr. Ken is survived in part by his brothers and sisters, Robert Irrgang of Hopkins, Mn.; Brother Conrad (Howard) Irrgang, OCSO of Spencer, Mass.; Carolyn A. Irrgang of St. Louis Park, Mn.; Sister Marylyn Irrgang, SSND of Mankato, Mn.; Harlan (Voula) Irrgang of Plano, Tx.; Sister Jovann Irrgang, SSND of Mankato; and Marcia Holland of Elk River, Mn.

Services are as follows: Visitations 4-8 p.m. on Friday, May 11, at Williams Dingmann Family Funeral Home, 1900 Veterans Dr., St. Cloud, Mn. 56303, and 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 12, at Church of St. Paul, 411 – 5th St., Nicollet, Mn. 56074, followed by Mass of Christian Burial at the same location.

Photo shows Fr. Ken Irrgang holding the container of semita bread from which Ethel Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, presented the host to Cesar Chavez during the mass ending his 36-day fast over pesticides on Aug. 21, 1988, at the Forty Acres near Delano. Behind Fr. Ken is Cesar’s mother, Juana Chavez, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Photo © Victor Aleman; used with permission)