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Mary Jean Friel

The feisty one

“What I learned from NFWM is to never have a meeting without an action. I won’t be on a committee anymore unless we do an action, otherwise it’s just a waste of blabbing,” reflected Mary Jean Friel, a former National Farm Worker Ministry staffer and board member representing the Lorettos.

A life dedicated to standing with marginalized people, Mary Jean is familiar with taking action. She became involved in the farm worker movement in the early 1960s after hearing Fred Ross speak. She says she was hooked right then and there, and she immediately began working with the United Farm Workers, which ultimately led her to NFWM. 

What Mary Jean recalls the most about that work was the support of the church. She talks about the support of the church community when she was arrested for defending a farm worker: “The church was with us, even when I was in jail for 5 days. People from all over the US sent church people to get us out of jail. I was young. The first time [I was arrested] was in 1973 with the strike in Arvin [California].  We’d get up at 4AM and drink runny oatmeal and go to the strike line. This young woman I knew – she was 17 or 18 and I was 22, she was feisty as hell. She had suffered all her life, she was a farm worker, and she was working with the union [UFW]. She crossed the strike line and that’s when the Teamsters started hitting her. So I ran to pound on them and then they started coming after me so I ran into the grape fields and then they sent a helicopter after me. It came down on top of me and they put me in jail with [her]. It was all farm worker women thrown in the same cell. They were so happy because I was a ‘religious’ and church people from all across the country came to help. Loretto was having an assembly and told everyone I was in jail. The World Council of Churches advertised it. People came from all over to help the farm workers. NFWM is faith based – whatever that means to people: we’re not all catholics or presbyterians, we’re not all christians. We are anybody who loves humanity.”

A short time later, Mary Jean was sent to New York to organize workers. That’s where she met her husband, Leo Nieto, who helped Chris Hartmire raise the initial $25,000 needed to fund NFWM, says Mary Jean.

Mary Jean, Leo and their three children were again reassigned to California where they began working with NFWM, eventually ending up at La Paz, the home of the UFW, where they were helping to set up a community for farm workers and organizers to live and retire. 

“We went to La Paz to help set up the community life, which really dealt with NFWM because Chris and Pudge [Hartmire] came there after we left. A lot of NFWM people like Richard Cook, ministers, and others were living and working at La Paz. We set up bookkeeping and a newspaper. I was in charge of community life – with 3 babies! A lot of us were very young and the women helped each other to do what we needed to get done,” remembered Mary Jean.

In later years [“I can’t remember what year, it all blends together!”], Mary Jean left the NFWM staff and  went on to serve on the board, representing the Lorettos. “NFWM does not quit. One campaign goes into another, whether it’s setting up YAYA [Youth and Young Adult network] or helping the Coalition of Immokalee Workers or FLOC [Farm Labor Organizing Committee],” she says. 

The Lorettos are known for their ability to get the word out and engage their membership, something Mary Jean has always done on behalf of NFWM. “We have a network where we can get the word out and all people have to do is call their legislators. We have a website and it’s very simple: at our assemblies, we have everyone call at the same time. We say ‘ok, everybody take out your cell phone, put this number in and call and if you don’t get an answer, call an hour later, and say you are from Loretto and what are you doing (with whatever campaign we are working on)’ and people freak out. The campaign I remember was getting a woman out of sanctuary. We all went to Washington and they said ‘who are these Lorettos?.’” 

Mary Jean added: “The best thing for me is that Loretto continues to be steadfast in support of NFWM.”

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