SILVER SPRING, Maryland — Eighteen construction workers from the Washington, D.C., region who lost their lives on the job during the past year were memorialized April 28 in the first observance in the Archdiocese of Washington of International Workers’ Memorial Day.
In a Mass celebrated at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, the 18 workers from Washington, Maryland and Northern Virginia were symbolized by white hard hats bearing their names set upon chairs circling the parish altar.
A 19th hard hat with no name was looped with a blue surgical mask to symbolize an unknown number of construction trade workers who died from COVID-19. A single red rose was also on each chair.
Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, pastor of St. Camillus, related how some of the workers had died: crushed or suffocated in collapsed trenches; injured in falls, struck by vehicles or other objects, or electrocuted. He noted that according to data kept by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, while construction workers make up 4 percent of the U.S. workforce, they account for 20 percent of workplace fatalities.
“It’s a dangerous business, and you have to know what you are doing,” he said.
Jordan recalled that upon his ordination just a few weeks shy of 38 years ago at St. Camillus, he was told “these hands are sacred.”
“Every construction worker has sacred hands as well,” he said in his homily. “You can’t do anything in this world without construction workers,” he added, listing the need to build roads, houses, office buildings and every other structure.
He linked the workers to Mass readings that spoke of building the kingdom of God, saying, “construction workers are co-creators of God’s world.”
Banners from a half dozen construction unions were hung on the church’s walls — Plumbers and Pipefitters; Painters and Allied Trades; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; Steamfitters; Sheet Metal Workers International and the Laborers International Union of North America.
Many in the congregation for the late afternoon Mass were representing the groups and other labor unions. Union pins and ribbons were worn by many and the cars in the parking lot sported union license plate frames and stickers.
Jordan said the workers being memorialized may or may not have been members of unions. “Whether you’re a union worker or a nonunion worker, we are all equal in death,” he said.
The priest, who was newly reassigned to St. Camillus last summer, had previously served in New York and Boston and for 13 years has been observing Workers Memorial Day in New York and Massachusetts.
He said this memorial Mass for workers, held three days before May 1, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, would be the start of greater efforts to link workers to the church, particularly in this year proclaimed by Pope Francis as honoring St. Joseph.
The date of the Mass also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the founding of OSHA on April 28, 1971, in the U.S. Department of Labor. That regulatory agency has been credited with having a dramatic impact on workplace safety.
Jordan mentioned plans for a job fair at his parish and a building trades job fair at St. Francis International School on the parish grounds. He also said he wants to start a Catholics in Construction group to pray, socialize and support each other while upholding the dignity of labor.
“This is humble beginnings,” he said of the Mass, attended by about 50 people and also livestreamed. “But we have a Red Mass for judges and lawyers, a Blue Mass for police. This is a Hard Hat Mass,” and there will be more to come, he promised.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh had planned to attend the Mass but had to cancel a few hours before it started and sent a recorded message that was played at the end of Mass.
As the son of a construction worker — and having a long personal history with the construction trade — he knows how dangerous the work can be. He also noted that “the vast majority of workplace deaths are preventable if safety precautions are taken.”
Walsh was mayor of Boston until his appointment and served as local president of the Laborers Union and was head of Boston Building Trades before he was elected mayor.
He also pointed out that as the son of Irish immigrants, he’s well aware of how many immigrant workers, like his father did, travel great distances to provide for their families.
The majority of the workers memorialized at the Mass were Hispanic and both Father Jordan and Walsh said that is typical.
“Let us never forget their sacrifices,” Walsh said, “and commit to building a world where every laborer comes home safely.”
Zapor is on the staff of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.