Reaching out to Hispanic peoples


Machiavelli himself would have envied Sister Mary Neil Corcoran's political skills.

He would have ascribed her success to her diplomat's poise. He would have appreciated the way she avoids suggestions of favoritism among people ever sensitive to it.

As head of the Spanish Apostolate, a charitable agency serving Baltimore's Hispanics, she works with a population often mistakenly viewed by outsiders as homogeneous because its members speak the Spanish language and share the Catholic religion, at least most of them.

"She is the same with all the people," said Yelihtza Miranda, here only three months from Venezuela, but who noticed that talent when she came to the Apostolate for help.

Sister Mary Neil has been a volunteer at the Apostolate, which was established 30 years ago by the Associated Catholic Charities; she has served on its board and taught English there to people from virtually every Spanish-speaking country. Today, as the agency's head, she is a prodigious recruiter of unpaid volunteers to help with its work.

To Dr. Cuauhtemoc Sanchez, one of those volunteers, there is another quality that defines Sister Mary Neil. Her constancy.

"That is the outstanding fact" to know about her, he said. "Her having been there for 30 years."

Dr. Sanchez, of the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Unit, offers regular primary care at the Apostolate. In all there are about 50 volunteers. They keep busy trying to satisfy the 20 to 30 people who show up each day looking for help.

The volunteers are clearly needed: The Apostolate's yearly budget of around $100,000 is hardly enough to pay the four employees, the rent and operating costs required to service about 700 clients.

The volunteers mostly teach English, which Sister Mary Neil believes is the most important of the services the Apostolate offers.

"In Baltimore there has never been a Hispanic neighborhood, or section, a place where you can even survive without speaking English. Here when you have to go look for a job, or a place to stay, you can only do this if you can communicate in English, at least minimally."

Thus, teaching goes on almost every day at the Apostolate: individual instruction during the week, group classes on Tuesdays and Saturdays. These keep growing, and soon might outgrow the few rooms the Apostolate rents at 10 S. Wolfe St.

"The last two Tuesdays we had 39 or 40 people," the sister said recently. "We need to find more space."

Finding things is something else she does. Over the years, Sister bTC Mary Neil has found jobs for the jobless, shelter for the homeless, clothing, furniture, food. She has located Spanish-speaking doctors and dentists for sick and pain-ridden Hispanics. She has compiled lists that tell where to hear a Mass in the mother tongue.

Mary Neil Corcoran was born in Baltimore; she's lived here nearly all her life. The very longevity of her career prompts the question, how old is Sister Mary Neil?

This she declines to answer, diplomatically.

"They'd make me retire," she said, and makes a face.

She makes faces all the time. She also laughs a lot, in bursts, little explosions of mirth. She is fitfully energetic. Her eyes, behind owlish glasses, are gunmetal gray, slightly darker than her short hair.


Stella Chavez, a Cuban and director of projects at the Apostolate, refers to her boss's vaunted even-handedness:. "She knows that within this community we have differences. Cubans are different from Puerto Ricans. Argentinians are different from Cubans. Some Guatemalans don't like Mexicans, and it goes back to when Mexico took a [Guatemalan] state a long time ago."

As people from Spanish-speaking nations migrate here, they bring their prejudices, their memories of wars and lost territories. These recollections are always there, ready to spoil the harmony of what is loosely -- and probably incorrectly -- termed Baltimore's Hispanic community.

"But Sister Mary knows how to deal with that," said Mrs. Chavez. "She has never been biased, never been partial to any group. It is something very difficult to do, especially for an American. She just knows what our differences are."


"I've studied the cultures of these people," said Sister Mary Neil. "History has made me see every country as unique. When people come here they don't think of themselves as Hispanics." Nor, she says, do they see themselves as a "community" of Spanish speakers. Rather, they identify with their nationality, even with the regions they've come from.

She recalled meeting some shepherds some years back in Navarre, Spain. "They asked us what the people in New York think of Navarrans. That's how people are."


The Spanish Apostolate opened its doors on Sept. 16, 1963. "There was a kind of ferment back then. It was a wonderful time, full of hope," said Nancy Conrad, its co-founder. "Our idea was that a place was needed where the American Catholic Church could open its doors to the Hispanic people who were then coming into Baltimore."

Laurie Vega, who followed Ms. Conrad as director of the Apostolate, recalled, "There weren't any services here for Hispanics. There was nobody to help them get jobs, or help those who got into trouble. We had to educate people. For instance, the police, if they arrested a Puerto Rican who didn't have a green card, we had to tell the police officer you don't need a green card if you're a Puerto Rican."

(The so-called green card identifies legal immigrants.)

The U.S. Census of 1960 didn't even record Hispanics. In Baltimore, there were probably only about a thousand, mostly Puerto Ricans.

But a recent report by the Baltimore Roman Catholic Archdiocese revealed that by 1990 the Hispanic population of Maryland had reached 125,102, a 93 percent increase between 1980 and 1990. There are more than 30,000 officially in the Baltimore area, most around Fells Point. No one knows how many illegal immigrants are here.

The Hispanic population here is unusual, "almost the complete reverse of other major metropolitan concentrations of Hispanic population," the report observed. It has no dominant group, no Puerto Rican, Mexican or Cuban majority as in other cities.

This kind of settlement, said the Rev. John Lavin, "has no logic to it," goes against the usual pattern where one nationality settles, then draws people of its own kind.

Father Lavin is one of two Spanish-speaking priests assigned to St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, at Lombard and South Wolfe streets. It has the largest Hispanic congregation in the city: About 200 of its 350 members are Hispanic.

St. Michael's church, spurred by the growth of the Hispanic population, and by the number of Spanish-speaking Protestant sects in town, has intensified its pastoral, or missionary, work.

Though the Apostolate, just across South Wolfe Street, also has a pastoral mission, Sister Mary Neil finds it "kind of hard to find the distinction" between social and pastoral activities.

"Some people view the pastoral mission as just praying," she said. "I don't separate it from meeting the needs of people."

But she avoids proselytizing within the Apostolate. "Quite a few Evangelicals are coming to the center. I don't want people who are not of this [Catholic] religion to stop coming here."

And illegals?

"We don't ask that question."


So how did this child of an Irish-American household near 33rd Street and The Alameda, the third of eight children, wind up with this faintly exotic vocation?

It was the Spanish language that brought her to it. She studied it at Mount St. Agnes High School and majored in it at Mount St. Agnes College.

She earned a doctorate in Spanish literature and linguistics in Spain, where she lived 2 1/2 years. She came under the influence of contemporary Spanish novelist Miguel Delibes and wrote her doctoral thesis on the theme of death in his work.

Yet, despite this academic background, "I didn't want to do the medieval thing and wind up in a library over in Europe. I wanted to use the Spanish by living in contact with Hispanics."

And does she?

"I probably know every Hispanic in the city by now," she said.

It is a joke of a boast. What she's really proud of is her silver medal, won in singles tennis in the Towson State Senior Olympics in 1991. The previous year she took a third-place ribbon. She does aerobics twice a week and plays tennis every Saturday.

Sister Mary Neil is a member of the Sisters of Mercy. Mercy is a quality some suggest she rarely brings to the tennis court.

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