EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Catholic leaders representing three states and two nations gathered Saturday in the middle of the Rio Grande to pray for the hundreds of migrants who’ve died this year along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Mass on the river is a yearly tradition accentuated by a record number of fatalities this year.

One-hundred and forty-nine migrants in El Paso and Southern New Mexico – 686 from San Diego to Brownsville – died of falls, drowned in canals and in the Rio Grande or perished in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona deserts from Oct. 1, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2023, federal officials told Border Report. The number of fatalities in the El Paso region is a record and twice what it was last year.

“We are praying in a particular way here for those who have died pursuing their dream of finding a place of refuge, of safety and found that dream die with them in our deserts, in our canals,” said El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz. “We also are celebrating our unity. While borders have a place, borders don’t speak to the whole reality. The border sets the edge of a nation, but it can be a place of encounter, not confrontation.”

The bishops celebrated Mass on a wooden plank in the middle of the river, which hardly has any water at this time of year in El Paso. In the background rose the steel bollards of the U.S. border wall and spectators parked on a stretch of river where the Texas Army National Guard has placed concertina wire facing not Mexico, but New Mexico.

White crosses symbolizing deceased migrants lined the riverbank, and flag bearers carrying the standards of Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, Ecuador and Mexico – whose citizens have crossed the border at El Paso by the thousands in recent years – marched near the wall.

Las Cruces, New Mexico, Bishop Peter Baldacchino said it’s regrettable that people die from injustices or lack of care.

“We talk about welcoming people into our home without remembering we are in the home and land of our Father. Nothing of this belongs to us, it all belongs to our Heavenly Father, and one day he will ask an account from us how we administered the blessings that he has sent our way. Let us put our faith into practice and build bridges.”

Juarez Bishop Jose Guadalupe Torres said the church is deeply involved in assisting migrants who arrive at the border. “We pray for all migrants, especially for those departed, and also for the mission of commitment to show mercy, embrace, protect and integrate among us our migrant and refugee brothers,” he said.

At least 200 on either side of the river witnessed the gathering. For some, it was the first time they stood so close to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I think it’s a beautiful, wonderful Mass. The symbolism of us meeting at the border, right there on the river is very poignant,” said Danny Muniz, a member of the Knights of Columbus. The Mass was a call “that we open our hearts. That’s what’s going on here, that we love everyone, and we take sympathy and compassion on people.”