Beloved former United Farm Workers chaplain Father Ken Irrgang was laid to rest Saturday, May 12, 2018 after services at the Catholic Church of St. Paul in his small hometown of Nicollet in southern Minnesota. Presiding were Bishop John M. LeVoir and 15 priests in a church filled with family and friends. He was buried next to his parents in the church’s secluded cemetery set amidst trees and farm fields outside Nicollet.
Among those pictured during the graveside service are Father Ken’s sisters (seated from left), Carolyn A. Irrgang, Sr. Jovann Irrgang and Sr. Marylyn Irrgang. At his request, Father Ken rested in a plain pine casket (right), reminiscent of Cesar Chavez’s wishes when he passed away in 1993.
Representing the farm worker movement at the services was Marc Grossman, Cesar Chavez’s longtime spokesman and speechwriter. He delivered these remarks after the liturgy at St. Paul:
To Bishop LeVoir and the clergy, to Father Ken’s sisters and brothers, and other family members, thank you for the privilege of allowing us to share with you today on behalf of the United Farm Workers of America, the farm worker movement and the Chavez family.
A number of priests were UFW chaplains over the years beginning in the ‘60s. None served longer or with more commitment—and none was more beloved—than Ken Irrgang, fondly called Father Ken.
For 12 years, beginning in 1977, Father Ken worked with us at the UFW headquarters at La Paz in Keene, California. He celebrated Sunday masses and presided over countless baptisms, weddings, funerals, marches, union conventions and other special occasions. Father Ken baptized my middle son, Aaron, in 1979.
Ken received the same “pay” Cesar Chavez and all the rest of us in the UFW received then—$5 a week plus room and board. Shortly after Ken arrived, Cesar raised the pay by 100 percent, to $10 per week. Even for a priest who took a vow of poverty, the pay he received working with Cesar and the UFW might have seemed a little sparse.
Nevertheless, Father Ken said, “the years of my involvement with migrant farm workers [were] the most meaningful years of my priesthood and, indeed, my entire life.”
Ken talked about growing up among the children of Latino migrant workers he befriended in Nicollet during the ‘30s and ‘40s. But Ken said he gave little thought to their plight until 1968. That was the year he was ordained a priest. It was also the year he became active with the union’s grape boycott. After two grape strikers were killed during a second grape strike in 1973, Father Ken travelled to UFW headquarters at La Paz in central California to hold Holy Week and Easter services.
He committed himself as a full-time volunteer with the movement over a period of 12 years before returning to his diocese in Minnesota in 1989. Ken worked in the UFW personnel office at La Paz, at union boycott offices in Boston and New York—and he wrote for both the UFW English- and Spanish-language publications.
But he is best remembered for his ministry with the farm workers and the genuine friendships that blossomed with Cesar Chavez and union members and staff across California. That was especially the case among the roughly 250 people who lived and labored at any given time at our La Paz headquarters in the small Tehachapi Mountain town of Keene southeast of Bakersfield.
People fondly recall Father Ken during those dozen years at La Paz as a curmudgeonly bear with a big heart. He was particular about his likes and dislikes. He was a great conversationalist. He had a great sense of humor, told funny jokes—and made friendships that lasted years with people from all ethnicities and faiths, including this nice Jewish boy.
He took great care with the liturgy. He would spend much time preparing his homilies. He patiently worked with guitar players, including my wife, Maria—most of whom were novices—to ensure their best performance during mass. He made sure the often makeshift alter set up in a conference room or on an outdoor table or on the back of a flatbed truck was a worthy reflection of the congregation’s faith and love of the Lord.
One of his most memorable times was during Cesar Chavez’s last, and longest, water-only public fasts—lasting 36 days—over the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their children. It was conducted in 1988 at the farm workers’ historic Forty Acres property outside Delano.
Every day of the fast farm workers from all over made pilgrimages to visit Cesar and attend evening mass over which Father Ken—and visiting priests—presided.
Ken said the mass ending the fast on August 21, 1988 was particularly memorable. The fast was so painful and debilitating, and Cesar was so weak, that two of his sons, Paul and Anthony, half carried him, one holding 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.
Also there were some of the nation’s most prominent labor leaders, Hollywood actors, Reverend Jesse Jackson and members of the Kennedy family.
There were a number of co-celebrants at the mass, Catholic clergy who outranked Father Ken. But it was Father Ken whom Cesar asked to preside as the main celebrant.
In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy had handed Cesar a small piece of semita bread to conclude the mass ending his first public fast, of 25 days, over nonviolence. Twenty years later Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, took a piece of bread from Father Ken and handed it to Cesar.
Cesar was weak after returning home to La Paz. He initially didn’t attend the weekly community mass as he usually did. So Father Ken went to his modest home on the grounds to give him Holy Communion in brief private ceremonies. On one of those occasions, 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 much sentiment. “To this day,” Father 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 Father Ken returned to the Forty Acres near Delano. Then he was one of several dozen co-celebrants at the funeral mass for Cesar after he died in 1993, at age 66. This time 45,000 people attended the mass. Presiding was the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles.
The next day, about 150 of us—Chavez family and close friends—gathered at La Paz for a private graveside ceremony. Cesar’s widow, Helen Chavez, asked Father Ken to officiate. The site is now part of the Cesar Chavez National Monument, the 398th unit of the National Park Service.
The entire community took part in an outdoor farewell party on the grounds of La Paz when Father Ken left the movement full time in 1989. He received two farewell gifts. One was a good-size bottle of what he jokingly called his “holy water”—gin. Everyone knew of Ken’s love of a good gin-and-tonic and martini. The other was a gold pocket watch and chain, given on behalf of the entire community. Father Ken was touched by the gifts, and by the genuine expressions of gratitude for his dedicated service.
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,” Father 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.”
Father Ken never “retired” from his service to the needy. Until his passing, he continued teaching English to immigrants and reading for the blind.
He was front and center in historical events in California. He was unfailingly humble and modest, but he led a very consequential life.
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 Ken Irrgang. He preached the gospels and also strived to live out their lessons every day of his life.
Thank you again for letting us share with you. May God bless and keep this thoroughly good and decent man. Those of us with the farm worker movement are with you in mourning—and honoring—him today.