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Latino Catholics feel Church unity lacking

Jenny Araujo a member of the choir of

Jenny Araujo a member of the choir of St. Brigid's Church sings and plays the guiro a Latin-American percussion instrument. Mrs. Araujo performs at a mass in St. Brigid/Our Lady of Hope School 's chapel. She is from El Salvador. (June 3, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

The friendship between Lupe Ramirez and Annette McGrath was born at the 7 a.m. English Mass at St. Brigid's parish in Westbury.

Newly arrived from Colombia, Ramirez started attending the daily Mass about three years ago to maintain a traditional practice from her homeland. McGrath, 81, a retired Grumman secretary, befriended her even though she spoke little Spanish and Ramirez spoke little English.

They overcame the language barrier partly by using facial and hand expressions. Now they are so close McGrath, who is married to a retired Navy captain, invites Ramirez and her husband, Marco, to Thanksgiving dinner every year with her family.

"We're now part of the family, it's very nice," Ramirez, who is in her early 60s and was a social worker in Colombia, said in Spanish. "I haven't felt any difference between the Hispanics and the Americans. They have received me well." Today, she added, she has many American friends.

That is how Catholic Church leaders say they hope the melding of different ethnic groups will play out over time as the Diocese of Rockville Centre undergoes historic transformation.

Latinos now account for at least 25 percent of Catholics on Long Island, compared with less than 10 percent in the early 1980s, according to Latino church leaders. They are seen as vital to the church's future.

"You can construct a new Long Island -- a Long Island with justice for all," Bishop William Murphy told an exuberant crowd of Latinos at a Dia de La Raza (Day of the People) Mass in Huntington Station in 2004.

But ethnic tensions, and divisions over language and culture, aren't always left outside church doors. For the most part, the two communities worship separately and interaction is spotty.

"I try to build bridges to harmonize the two communities," said the Rev. Christopher Nowak, the bilingual pastor at St. John of God in Central Islip. "It's an uphill battle. Some [English-speakers] are open. Some are threatened by them [Spanish-speakers]. Some American people would never go to a bilingual Mass. Some love the bilingual Mass."

Jenny Araujo, a Salvadoran immigrant and a parishioner at St. Brigid's since the early 1970s, said that while there is a welcoming of Latinos on one level at many churches on Long Island, it doesn't always run deep.

"I believe we have acceptance in the church as a community," said Araujo, an international marketing representative for a lighting company. But, "I believe people are still in their own groups. I don't see them unified. We may not suffer discrimination in the church but the deep acceptance within the communities is yet to come. It's sad."


Part of church's mission

The church sees unity as central to its work -- the word "Catholic" means "universal."

"It is part of the church's mission to bring people together in a kind of solidarity," said the Rev. William Brisotti, a bilingual priest whose has worked with Spanish-speaking parishioners in the diocese since the 1960s.

But the effort is not immune from strife in the region over the past decade, such as the fallout from the 2008 killing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue by local teenagers in what police called a hate crime.

Some parishes are striving to bring the groups together. At a bilingual outdoor Good Friday re-enactment in Greenport last year, hundreds of people from both communities attended, said Sister Margaret Smyth, head of the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate. "I was amazed at the number of English-speaking people who came," she said. "It was beautiful."

At a similar event this year in Central Islip, Joan Walsh, 81, a longtime parishioner and lector at St. John of God, was one of a few English-speaking parishioners who walked along with a throng of Latinos during a procession re-enacting Jesus' crucifixion outside the church. She understood almost none of the Spanish dialogue, but nonetheless felt a part of the event and marveled at its beauty.

"It's so touching, I want to cry," she said.

Yet she also thinks the different communities should come together more, including attending Mass together, and she wants Latinos to learn enough English so they can do so.

"I think we should all be together as one church," she said. "It's like we have two separate parishes."

Nowak said he is taking several steps to bring the communities together, such as holding a concert Sunday with both English and Spanish choirs, and an international picnic Aug. 25 featuring Italian, Latino and Irish foods. While the sense of brotherhood is improving, Nowak said, it is always a challenge.


Cultural differences

Sister Claudia Allen, head of the parish's Hispanic Apostolate, said sharp cultural differences create obstacles. Hispanics, for instance, often are very expressive in their faith, singing and praying loudly, while native English-speakers tend to be more reserved, she said.

"Religion in America is kind of a private thing," she said.

Some longtime parishioners believe that "these people should learn English. They're in America now," Allen said.

Tensions boiled over at St. John of God one Sunday when some elderly people arriving for an 11 a.m. English Mass had difficulty getting in because people leaving a 9:30 a.m. Spanish Mass were still congregating by the doors. Angry words were exchanged, and Allen was called over to calm the confrontation. The following week, she stood by the door to make sure the transition went smoother.

Suzanne Lafferty, 69, a parishioner at St. John of God, said she was glad to see the influx of Latinos because many Catholics in their 20s and 30s who are primarily English-speaking -- including some of her own children -- no longer participate in the church.

"We need the young people in the church, and the Hispanic community is young and we need to keep the church going," she said.

Still, she said, communication is difficult with Latinos who speak primarily Spanish.

"That's where the separation is," Lafferty said.

She said some longtime parishioners also feel -- unfairly, in her opinion -- that Latinos get too much attention, at the expense of other churchgoers who provide the parish the bulk of its financial support.

In Farmingville, where there has been tension and some violence over the past decade, critics of the church say it has rarely played a strong public role to bridge divides.


Anger over day laborers

Local anger about Latino day laborers congregating on street corners fueled the turmoil and divided the predominantly English-speaking parishioners at the local Church of the Resurrection.

"There was a lot of resistance to helping the Latinos," Matilde Parada, a Catholic and a longtime Latina community organizer in Farmingville, said in Spanish.

Charles Funk, a Catholic and founder of a community organization, Brookhaven Citizens for Peaceful Solutions, said Murphy never took a strong enough public stand.

"On a major Catholic social justice issue, they [church leaders] were silent," Funk said.

Resurrection's pastor, the Rev. Malcolm Burns, did not return calls seeking comment.

But Murphy said the church has responded appropriately.

"Our task is primarily to pastor to the people of God. We're not here primarily to be social tinkerers. We're not the primary agents of social change. We bring about social change because we are the primary messengers of Christ's message for all human beings."

He recalled a quiet visit to a Mexican family whose home in Farmingville was firebombed by local teenagers in 2003, and later taking some of the family to St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan for a Lady of Guadalupe service. Some parishioners at the Church of the Resurrection also collected donations for the victims.

Murphy also said he had "great confidence" in Burns, who became pastor a few years after the arson.

"I sent him there because he's perfectly fluent in Spanish. If you went there on any Sunday, you would see a very vibrant Spanish community worshipping there.

"I think there are unresolved tensions there [in Farmingville]," Murphy continued, "but I don't see it as being anywhere as acute today as it was when I first arrived here."

Most efforts to heal wounds in Farmingville have occurred largely without church involvement, Parada said. Her community group, Human Solidarity, joined forces with the Farmingville Residents Association, led by English-speakers, to run events such as a community cleanup day and a Christmas dinner, she said.


Response to killing knocked

In nearby Patchogue, Lucero's funeral took place not at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, where he was a parishioner and regularly attended Sunday Spanish Mass, but at the Congregational Church of Patchogue a few blocks away.

Francisco Cales, head of the diocese's Hispanic Ministry Office, said Lucero's funeral was not held at St. Francis de Sales for a variety of reasons. "It actually became very political and that's not what the church wants to do," he said.

Lucero's brother, Joselo, said the church's response after the killing was inadequate and that's why the funeral was held elsewhere. "I'm still disappointed with them," Lucero said. "They have to be more involved with the community."

Murphy said the then-pastor of St. Francis de Sales and an auxiliary bishop, Peter Libasci, actively reached out to the Lucero family. "As a church, we were very much present," he said.

Across the diocese, Latinos have begun rising to leadership positions, such as membership on councils that help govern each parish, but often not in proportion to their numbers, said Manuel J. Ramos, former head of the diocese Hispanic Ministry Office.

"There is a Latin presence, little by little, still underrepresented, but more than 20 years ago," Ramos said. "The good thing is that they are not there as token Latinos but by virtue of their competence."

Cales said that overall, the diocese has tried to address tensions and to make Spanish-speaking Catholics feel welcome.

"Are there issues? Of course. We are not perfect," he said. "There are moments when people can be hurt, people can feel segregated, people can feel left out. But as a church we work toward being one."

He said the diocese sponsors a picnic every September at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Lloyd Harbor for Hispanic youth groups. Seminarians are required to study Spanish, and many deacons spend at week at the diocese's mission in the Dominican Republic to see how the poor in Latin America live.

The diocese also does all it can to attract Latinos to its programs, Cales said. And last week Murphy said he was seeking Vatican approval for the diocese's first Latino auxiliary bishop.

"We need to be very clear" about Catholics of Latino heritage, Cales said. "It's not a church within a church. It is the church, of which we all participate."



Latino Catholics have brought to Long Island some major religious celebrations that originated in their homelands:

Our Lady of Guadalupe -- Mexico Based on tradition dating to Dec. 9, 1531, in which a recently converted Aztec peasant, Juan Diego, is said to have had a vision of Mary while on a hill in the desert near Mexico City. Celebrated in December.

Nuestra Senora de la Paz or "Our Lady of Peace" -- El Salvador Inspired by a statuette of Mary said to have been found in the 17th century and credited with halting wars and natural disasters. Celebrated Nov. 21.

Senor de Los Milagros or "Lord of the Miracles" -- Peru In Lima, Peru, one of world's largest religious processions take place. Dates to 18th century when earthquake destroyed much of city but left a mural of Jesus standing. Celebrated over several days in late October.

Dia de la Raza, or Day of the People - Throughout Latin America Literally "Day of the Race," a version of Columbus Day marked with both religious and secular observances to commemorate the origins of Hispanic peoples in the Americas from contact between Spanish colonizers and indigenous peoples. Celebrated Oct. 12.

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