Parishioners spilled out of a packed Hempstead church where they worshipped with Cardinal José Gregorio Rosa Chávez Sunday in a service that church leaders and the faithful said showed the true face of Long Island’s Salvadoran and Latino community — one defined not by gang membership, but by faith, family and hard work.
On the final day of a three-day visit to Long Island by the first cardinal in El Salvador’s history, close to 1,500 parishioners jammed Our Lady of Loretto Catholic Church, standing in the aisles, overflowing into an entrance lobby and heading down to a basement where some 300 of them watched a live video stream of the Mass.
Parishioners snapped photographs with their cellphones as Rosa Chávez, the first auxiliary bishop to be named a cardinal in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, made his way down the aisles before Mass.
Bishop John Barres, spiritual leader of Long Island’s 1.5 million Catholics, called the cardinal’s visit an “historic” moment that has created a sister city relationship between the dioceses here and in El Salvador, and has given the Latino population a major boost.
“This weekend has been historic because a friend of Blessed Oscar Arnulfo Romero…came to us and witnessed to our Hispanic community and to all of Long Island about the hope of our faith,” Barres said. “He gave us incredible inspiration with all the anxieties that our beautiful Hispanic community has experienced on Long Island,” he said.
Rosa Chavez was a close collaborator of Romero, who was slain in 1980 by a right-wing “death squad” for denouncing widespread government human rights abuses at the start of El Salvador’s brutal 1980-92 civil war.
Jenny Bonilla, 38, a public school teacher from Rockville Centre, said she returned to her childhood parish in Hempstead for the first time in 30 years so she could see the Catholic leader from her native El Salvador. The cardinal’s presence was “amazing,” she said. “I can’t imagine. It’s going to bring the people together.”
She said publicity about the MS-13 street gang, which operates in both El Salvador and the United States, and has created a sense of terror in Latino communities on Long Island, is “overshadowing what the Salvadoran community really is . . . this is a faith-based community, hardworking, and no different from any other community.”
Rosa Chávez alluded to the gang violence during his homily, noting that he, Barres, and other church leaders celebrated a Mass on Saturday night at St. Anne Catholic Church in Brentwood, an epicenter of some of the MS-13 violence. “The people are terrorized,” Rosa Chávez said in Spanish. “They don’t know what to do.” He urged them to move forward and not become paralyzed by fear.
Rosa Chavez visited the Nassau County jail on Saturday, and Barres noted that he “spoke very strongly and powerfully against the culture of death and against the formation that is involved in the culture of death and the gang experience.”
Long Island is home to an estimated 100,000 Salvadorans, one of the largest concentrations in the nation.
After the Mass in Hempstead, the cardinal traveled to Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, where he celebrated a second Mass before 900 people.
Before the service, Rosa Chávez was reunited with a couple whom he had married 45 years ago in El Salvador.
The husband, Luis Barahona, 72, had worked with Rosa Chávez at a radio station run by the church in El Salvador.He and his wife, Virginia, 76, of Jamaica, both were brought to tears by the reunion. They carried a photograph of Rosa Chávez marrying them, and the cardinal blessed it.
“It’s such an emotion of joy,” Virginia Barahona said in Spanish. “I can’t believe it.”
Another of the faithful, Maria Preza Villalobos, 50, of Baldwin, said she felt like she was already missing Rosa Chávez even though he hadn’t yet left.
“We are very happy and grateful with God for giving us this great blessing” of El Salvador’s first cardinal, she said in Spanish.
Rosa Chavez was scheduled to return to El Salvador on Monday, completing his first international trip since Pope Francis named him a cardinal in May.