Beardstown's school system and community agencies have scrambled to adjust to the wrenching changes that the town is undergoing. Even the local Roman Catholic church has been taken aback. "Communication is a problem, I admit," says the Rev. Eugene Weitzel, the 76-year-old priest whose formerly shrinking St. Alexius church is now bulging with new parishioners.
Weitzel, a prominent advocate for the Hispanic community, has introduced two Spanish-language masses, brought in Spanish-speaking outreach workers and arranged for the opening of a Catholic Charities medical clinic featuring Spanish-speaking staffers......
.....Change would come. In the late 1980s, Cargill Inc.'s Excel Corp. unit bought the shut-down Oscar Mayer plant on the edge of town and reopened it. The plant now slaughters 16,000 hogs a day, and employs about 2,000 workers - a third of them Hispanic.
The work is brutally hard, employee turnover is high, and the just-over-$10 hourly starting wage doesn't attract enough local workers. By the middle of the 1990s, the plant's seemingly bottomless need for new hires began drawing job-hungry Hispanic workers from the Midwest, California, Texas and Mexico.
The initial wave "was mostly all men," recalls Weitzel, the local priest. "Only after they settled in did they begin bringing in members of their family." St. Alexius offers newcomers donated bedding, clothing, dishes and the like, but notes that "once they get on their feet, they're very independent. Now they're buying homes."
The Hispanics who now comprise about 30 percent of Beardstown's population "are going through the exact same process" of settling in as "every nationality that's come before, like Germans, Polish and Italians."
Thank God for this refreshing attitude - open, welcoming, not fearful and realistic. The local paper has even started publishing a free, Spanish-language edition.