Latino Catholics infuse Church with faith, fervor
Every Sunday at 9:30 a.m., the extended Barahona family -- all 40 members -- squeezes into the first three rows at St. John of God Roman Catholic Church in Central Islip for the Spanish Mass.
The family matriarch, 81-year-old Margarita Barahona, a regular since the 1990s, sits in a wheelchair in the aisle. Those in the pews include several of her dozen children, their spouses and Barahona's grandchildren. On most Sundays, they are joined by the youngest member of the clan, 1-year-old Denis Barahona.
As the Rev. Romulo Gomez, originally from Colombia, intones from the altar, "La paz del señor este con ustedes" ("The peace of the Lord be with you"), the family responds in unison: "Y con tu espiritu" ("And with your spirit").
The Mass is a highlight of the week for the Barahonas, devout Catholic immigrants from El Salvador, and their offspring -- a time when they come together as family and celebrate their faith.
"A Sunday that we don't come to Mass isn't a Sunday," Estela Barahona, 43, an assistant bilingual teacher at Brentwood Middle School, said in Spanish. "The love of God is very important."
The Barahonas are emblematic of the changing face of the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island, home to one of the largest dioceses in the United States with 1.7 million Catholics. At a time when church attendance, participation and recruitment of priests are declining among U.S.-born Catholics, Latinos -- many of them newly arrived immigrants -- are flocking to the church.
Deeply faithful, they are packing Masses, injecting fresh energy into the church and turning many parishes into hubs of activity with prayer meetings and youth groups all week long.
Hispanics now account for at least 25 percent of Catholics in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, based on 2010 census figures and estimates from experts such as the Rev. William Brisotti, a prominent bilingual priest who has worked with Latinos since the 1960s, and Manuel J. Ramos, a former head of the diocese's Hispanic Apostolate Office.
Although there is no official count, that probably represents a doubling or even tripling of the figure from the early 1980s, before large numbers of immigrants from Central America began arriving here, they said.
"I don't think there's a parish that doesn't have Latinos," said Bishop William Murphy, who said Friday he is looking to recruit the diocese's first Hispanic auxiliary bishop. "They are people who are committed to their faith. They are people who practice their faith. I see them as a crucial and important part of the future."
Nationally, Hispanics account for an estimated 35 percent to 37 percent of all Roman Catholics, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. By 2038, they may be a majority, the center estimates.
In the Diocese of Rockville Centre, 55 out of 134 parishes have active Hispanic ministry programs, double the number of two decades ago, said Francisco Cales, coordinator of the diocese's Hispanic Ministry.
"It's astonishing growth," Brisotti said. "It's a transformational time."
But some Church leaders fear losing the new wave of parishioners to evangelical and Pentecostal churches if the diocese doesn't step up its outreach, connect more strongly with young Latino Catholics raised here and build more bridges between the Spanish- and English-speaking communities within the church.
The diocese "is dealing with it in a kind of piecemeal way," Brisotti said. "We need to do a lot more."
While the number of Latino Catholics is increasing, they are not always represented proportionally in positions of power on parish councils and other groups, Ramos said.
In some parishes, priests, nuns, deacons and other leaders such as eucharistic ministers who distribute Communion during Mass are successfully helping the ethnic groups integrate. In others, critics, including leaders of some community and church groups, contend efforts fall short.
They say the church has failed to reach out emphatically to the Spanish-speaking communities in such troubled areas as Farmingville and Patchogue, where ethnic tensions over the last dozen years have resulted in violent attacks on Latinos, including the 2008 killing of Marcelo Lucero, that have attracted national attention.
"Where were they when guys were beat up and spit on?" said Charles Funk, a longtime Catholic community activist in Farmingville. "They're absent. Silent." Murphy responded that "as a Church we were very much present," and that at one point he quietly visited some victims in Farmingville himself.
However, on the broader question of strengthening relations with his Latino flock, Murphy acknowledged that there is work to do: "I think we are doing a pretty good job, but I know we could do a lot better job."
Enlivening the faith
Men dressed as Roman soldiers surrounded a man in a white robe on April 6 as he carried a huge cross down Carleton Avenue in Central Islip. The soldiers yelled at "Jesus" in Spanish, calling him "cobarde" (coward) and "traidor" (traitor) as several hundred people followed them.
It was one of the largest and oldest such Good Friday processions among Long Island's Spanish-speaking Catholics, an example of how Latinos have brought colorful and inspiring traditions from their homelands to the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
"The faith of Hispanic people permeates their lives," the Rev. Christopher Nowak, 47, the bilingual pastor of St. John of God, said in an interview. "The Hispanic faith is overall enhancing and enlivening the Catholic faith on Long Island."
In the last seven years, his parish has doubled the number of weekend Spanish Masses, from two to four. The latest started in April. Some parishioners attend as many as three Masses each weekend, Nowak said.
Nowak grew up in Hicksville, where he was an altar boy and attended parochial school. As a seminarian he spent five months in Bolivia studying Spanish at the Maryknoll Language Institute and then a year ministering to the poor in Peru. He later spent six months at the diocese's mission in the Dominican Republic near the Haitian border.
He is the kind of bilingual priest the diocese is eager to have minister to growing Hispanic populations and to build bridges with the English-speaking community. Because of a shortage of Spanish-speaking priests, many do double or triple duty, regularly traveling to parishes besides their own to celebrate Spanish Masses.
"I was transformed" by the time in Peru, Nowak said. "Ever since then, I've loved the Spanish culture. It's wonderful and enlivening working with the Spanish population."
At his parish and others, the outdoor street processions are one sign of their growing church presence. The events are held to celebrate Catholic holidays such as Good Friday and to pay tribute to the patron saints from their homelands, who include Mexico's Our Lady of Guadalupe and Peru's El Señor de los Milagros (The Lord of Miracles).
Latino Long Islanders "bring a whole new spirit" to the church, said Sister Margaret Smyth, head of the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate. "They bring a celebration of their countries, their cultures."
In private, the religious devotion can be just as fervent. Carmen Perez, 75, originally from Puerto Rico, keeps a shrine in a corner of the living room in her Central Islip home with crucifixes, rosary beads, statues of Jesus and Mary, and a candle she keeps lit all day when she is home.
She and her husband, Jose, pray the rosary in front of the shrine daily. She says her belief pulled her through a harrowing health scare a decade ago, when she had to undergo seven operations for problems linked to an intestinal blockage and, at one point, was in a coma for 16 days.
"Whoever doesn't have faith, I don't know how they could survive," she said. "Faith is life."
When Perez came to the U.S. mainland as a young woman in 1959, she was part of the first large influx of Spanish-speakers to Long Island -- Puerto Ricans who started arriving in the late 1920s. They dominated the Latino Catholic population for the next half-century, and by the early 1950s the first Spanish Mass on Long Island was celebrated in the Puerto Rican enclave of Brentwood at St. Anne's parish, the diocese said. By 1968, the diocese had a Spanish Apostolate Office.
The population today is far more diverse. Large numbers of Salvadorans fled their nation's civil war in the 1980s and settled on Long Island. Today they are estimated by the Census Bureau to number at least 100,000, and make up one of the United States' five largest concentrations of Salvadorans, outnumbering Puerto Ricans in Nassau and Suffolk.
Immigrants from Guatemala and Honduras also fled their region's war and poverty, along with others from Colombia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. In recent years, the number of Mexicans has jumped, forming pockets in communities such as Farmingville. There are differing customs, cultures and even dialects and nuances of the Spanish language, to which the Church must adapt, Ramos said.
"There is no such thing as a Hispanic community on Long Island," said Brisotti, pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Wyandanch. "It's a multicultural, multiracial reality."
What is also notable, Ramos and others said, is that they are no longer concentrated in a handful of areas such as Brentwood and Hempstead but are spread throughout the Island, from Elmont to Montauk, giving a new look to a diocese that for decades was dominated mainly by Irish, Italian, Polish and German Catholics. Like the European immigrants before them, the Latino Catholic population is also becoming more economically and educationally varied.
While large numbers hold low-paying factory or service sector jobs, others are moving into the middle class and professional ranks. In contrast to many immigrants from such countries as El Salvador who come from rural areas and have little formal education, others from places such as Colombia are more likely to be university graduates, Smyth said.
"Today you see Lexuses and Mercedes and expensive cars in the parking lot" at church on Sundays, said Ramos, who attends St. Brigid's parish in Westbury.
For many Latino Catholics, attending Sunday Mass is just one part of their faith life. During the week, they are involved in church activities that include charismatic renewal prayer groups, training as eucharistic ministers and youth groups.
Parish "grupos de jovenes," or young adult groups for churchgoers between ages 18 and 30, are flourishing, Cales said. Participants pray together, discuss their faith and daily problems and organize soccer teams. The number of grupos in the diocese has gone from four to 27 in the last two decades, Cales said. The largest, at Our Lady of Loretto parish in Hempstead, has 120 members.
One recent Friday night, 40 young people gathered in the basement of St. John of God for their weekly meeting. Group coordinator Ulyses Chavez, 24, an immigrant from El Salvador, devised a TV talk show-type format where four "contestants" answered the question of the night: Was there ever a time when you did something your "madre" (mother) advised against, and it turned out badly?
The contestants shared their answers, one breaking down as she recalled her deceased mother, while the group listened intently. Chavez summed up the lesson learned. "The love of a mother is the closest thing we have to the love of God," he said in Spanish. "The love of God is immense and grand."
Holding on to young people from immigrant families is a major challenge for the church. While their parents may be devout, significant numbers from the next generation, growing up here, begin to disengage.
"A lot of young people are just drifting off. Kids sit in the back of the church, not paying attention," Brisotti said. "The kids are much more secularized, the grandkids, too. The further you get away" from the first generation of immigrants, "it gets to be less the core and fiber of your being."
Another concern for the diocese is the evangelical and Pentecostal churches that are making inroads with Latino Catholics of all ages. Many of the churches assertively recruit members, knocking on doors and offering rides to services. "It is a reality," Ramos said. "The Pentecostal evangelical churches offer an intimate group that allows people to feel at home."
Angel Falcon, pastor of Faith Alive Ministries in Central Islip, a Pentecostal church, said he has not seen huge numbers of Catholic Latinos switch to his church or similar ones in Central Islip. He said he works closely with local Catholic leaders on community issues. Still, his church has grown from 25 members when it started 20 years ago to 350 now -- at least half Latino, many of them former Catholics. "It's relevant to them," Falcon said. His church now has a weekly Spanish service, he said, and may need to move to larger quarters.
While Spanish-speaking immigrants inject energy into many parishes, they can also present practical and financial challenges. Those who are low-wage workers often turn to the church for assistance, said Ana Sullivan, head of social outreach at St. John of God. Many remain wary of government, partly because of bad experiences with repressive regimes in their homelands, Sullivan said. Some are also undocumented immigrants and afraid of contact with authorities.
"We have a lot of people who are very needy right now," Sullivan said. "The place they find is the church." Her office does everything from handing out food and running a clothing thrift shop to helping people fill out government forms for assistance.
Ramos said the community should be seen as a boost rather than a burden to the church because of its growing economic power. He noted that a recent Adelphi University study found that Latinos as a group are an asset to Long Island's economy.
One issue, though, is that immigrants from some countries often do not have a tradition of contributing strongly to their parishes financially because in their homelands, the church is often subsidized by the state or other groups. In the Dominican Republic, for instance, previous governments helped pay for church buildings, Brisotti said.
Some heavily Latino parishes such as Our Lady of Loretto in Hempstead are teaching parishioners the importance of stewardship, Ramos said.
Some church and Latino leaders hoped for more recruits to the priesthood from the communities. But it hasn't happened with the Rockville Centre diocese, where only a few Hispanics have entered the seminary. Currently there are two, Murphy said.
"We want Spanish-speaking priests, but there aren't enough here," said Yanira Chacon, an outreach coordinator at St. Brigid's. "This is a big problem we have."
More are joining religious orders such as the Vincentians, a group of missionary priests and brothers who founded St. John's University and have made a strong effort to work with Latinos on Long Island, especially on the East End. The Vincentians are Catholic but operate independently of the diocese.
Murphy said he is puzzled why more Latinos are not signing up to be priests in the diocese. One problem is that undocumented immigrants cannot enter the seminary here, though they can join the Vincentians since that is an international order, he said.
One solution may be getting more Latino children into the diocese's schools, which could lead to some eventually signing up for the priesthood, Murphy said. "We have wonderful schools, yet the Hispanics proportionally don't come to the Catholic schools," he said.
Sometimes because of the parents' low-paying jobs, they cannot afford to pay the Catholic school tuition, Cales said. And with good public schools available, they often opt for those rather than spend precious dollars on a Catholic school, he said.
"A lot of people ask about the schools, but when they find out how much it costs, it's difficult," Chacon said.
Cales said the diocese is trying to bring more Hispanics into its schools by, among other things, offering scholarship assistance through the Tomorrow's Hope Foundation. The foundation provides grants of up to $2,000 a year for tuition, which is roughly $4,000 at grammar schools.
In years to come, Long Island's growing Latino population holds opportunity for the church, and risk if it fails to capitalize on it, Brisotti said.
"Hispanic people are here to stay. They're not going away. They're part of Long Island," Brisotti said. "If there aren't any adjustments made, people will drift away" from the church.
For now, the bonds are strong.
Milena Morales, 40, an immigrant from Costa Rica, works as human resources supervisor at the Dominican Sisters' Mother House in Amityville. Her office is just steps away from the sisters' beautiful chapel with a soaring stained-glass window behind the altar that she often visits to pray.
"The church for me is the base for my life," Morales said. "God has to be the center for your life."
BY THE NUMBERS
25% of Catholics in the Diocese of Rockville Centre are Latino, according to unofficial estimates. In the early 1980s, they accounted for no more than 10 percent.
55 active Hispanic ministries out of 134 parishes in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
27 from 4 The increase in the number of Hispanic young adult groups in the diocese in the last two decades.
30-40 Hispanics attended a single Spanish Mass held in a church basement at St. Brigid's parish in Westbury in the early 1980s.
1,500+ attend three weekend Spanish Masses now.
Sources: Diocese of Rockville Centre; CARA at Georgetown University; Manuel J. Ramos, former head of diocese's Hispanic Apostolate Office; and the Rev. William Brisotti, prominent bilingual priest in the diocese
Long Island's Hispanic population is diverse. Here are the 10 most common homelands of origin or ancestry:
El Salvador 22.5%
Puerto Rico 20%
Dominican Republic 9.5%
Source: 2010 U.S. Census
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