Focus on Faith: Woman leads Hispanic prayer group in backstretch at track
Patti Schwartz isn’t a miracle worker. That’s the Lord’s job, she says. But to those in the Hispanic and Catholic community who work at Saratoga Race Course each summer, Schwartz has become a real godsend.
“It is really remarkable what Patti has been able to do here at Saratoga,” said the Rev. Tim Keating, associate pastor at St. Clement’s Roman Catholic Church in Saratoga Springs. “She is extraordinarily generous and so ebullient. She really draws people to this place.”
The place is the backstretch at Saratoga Race Course, and what Schwartz is doing for a third consecutive summer is to organize a Tuesday night gathering for the many Latino workers, nearly all of them Roman Catholic, who spend their summers there.
“We started out by just saying the rosary under a tree,” said Schwartz, whose small initial group has grown to about 50 and now meets in a pavilion. “For me, and I feel very close to the Virgin Mary, this is like a miracle. God is allowing me to devote myself to this community and allowing me to help the Hispanic people in an American church.”
The hispanic ministry coordinator at St. Clement’s, a part-time, paid position, Schwartz is a Queensbury resident and is Latino herself, having moved to upstate New York in 1982 from El Salvador.
“I’ve been here for 30 years now, but I came in 1982 because I wanted to go to school for a semester,” said Schwartz, who began taking classes at Adirondack Community College in Queensbury.
“But I ended up meeting my husband, and now we’ve been married for 29 years. He is Jewish, can you believe it? I feel like all of this is part of my mission in life. God gives me direction. He tells me where to go and what to do.”
Schwartz and her husband, Jeff, who owns his own construction business, have two children: Vanessa (23) and Steven (22). But before she began to raise her family, she continued to go to school, getting a bachelor’s degree at The College of Saint Rose and a master’s at the University at Albany. She has taught Spanish at Oneida Middle School in Schenectady and in the Albany and Galway districts. Just two years ago, she was one of a dozen teachers from a group of 254 nominees selected as a Top Teacher by WNYT-Channel 13.
Two summers ago, she was visiting the backstretch area at Saratoga, making sure the grooms, hot walkers and exercise riders knew about Sunday’s Spanish Mass at St. Clement’s. But she also knew she wanted to do more to help this community of workers who come to Saratoga each year for the summer meet.
“I was near the laundry room and I heard a man saying the rosary,” remembered Schwartz. “I joined him and we soon had a group of 10 men all under this big tree the first day I was there.”
The next time Schwartz showed up, she had 22 hot dogs and a banana cake she shared with the workers, and her Tuesday get-together proved to be a hit. These days it’s the first and third Tuesday of July and August, beginning at 6 p.m., and most of the time Schwartz is joined by Keating, who conducts Mass.
“I only arrived on the scene a year ago, but Patti was here two years ago, and we have had a Spanish-speaking Mass off and on at St. Clement’s for a while,” said Keating.
“Patti kind of rejuvenated it. On Tuesdays, she organizes this event, gets everybody singing and gets people for the readings, and then I come in and handle the Mass. She is amazing and so is her husband. He’s never here but he supports it and gives her the freedom to do it. Every time we meet here, she’s bringing six or seven bottles of soda and enough pizza for everybody. That’s how generous they are.”
Bob Cutler, a groom who moved to Saratoga full time earlier this year from the Baltimore area, had been coming to the backstretch every summer for nearly 30 years.
“I went to St. Clement’s a few years ago and heard the Mass in Spanish, so I told a lot of the guys in my stable about it,” said Cutler, who grew up in the Boston area. “Then, the next year they didn’t have it, so the guys stopped coming. I called the priest and said, ‘Can we have a bilingual Mass,’ and he said, ‘We’re working on it.’ ”
Cutler, who was there at the backstretch early one Tuesday night helping Schwartz prepare for the Mass, has become a regular attendee at the gatherings.
“I can speak Spanish. I know the guys, at least the guys in my stable, so I help Patti by putting up posters and talking it up,” he said. “She’s friendly, and she does a great job.”
Schwartz’s Tuesday night group sometimes attracts 50 people, and on Sundays at St. Clement’s, the 1 p.m. Spanish Mass can sometimes nearly double that number.
“I started coming to St. Clement’s six years ago and I really liked it,” said Schwartz. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Great, I commute to work, and now I’m going to commute to church. I had been going to a church in Glens Falls, but I just felt like something was happening down here. Now, things seem to be flourishing.”
According to Schwartz, the regular visits by Keating to her Tuesday night group are a big factor in its success. Keating had been working with the Latino population in Springfield, Mass., before moving to St. Clement’s in July 2011.
“The first year it was only me here saying the rosary,” remembered Schwartz. “Now, Father Tim comes and he really is wonderful and so supportive of me. He offers Mass and he speaks Spanish very well so it means a lot to the people who come here. He is very spiritual. He is like a gift to us.”
Most in the Tuesday night gatherings are men.
“It’s an unusual church gathering because I’d guess that about 90 percent of the people here are men, probably in their 30s,” Keating said. “But Patti does a great job with them. She has a nice singing voice, and while they were all kind of shy, she gets them singing, and they’ve developed this sense of loyalty to her. She’s really drawn them in and they keep coming.”
While Tuesday’s Mass is generally for the backstretch workers, Schwartz says the 1 p.m. Spanish Mass on Sunday at St. Clement’s is starting to attract people from all over the region.
“We’re getting more families, and we’ve had a lot of baptisms lately,” she said.
“There are more people in the summer because of the track, but we’re also getting people from other areas, like Granville, Hudson Falls and Schuylerville, who are willing to make the drive to St. Clement’s.”
And, if some people can’t make the drive, Schwartz will often visit them on Sunday afternoons and remind them of what they missed.
“I do the Sunday readings and offer a reflection, and when you do that people might make the effort to make Mass the next Sunday,” said Schwartz. “I probably shouldn’t say this because it sounds a little extreme but I just feel like the Virgin Mary has somehow chosen me to lead Jesus’ flock here. I’m helping to develop a sense of community and I’m serving them the best I can. I love to help people with their faith.”