A changing Catholicism

The Baltimore Sun

The future rolled into Our Lady of Pompei Church a few weeks ago. Her name was Yoselin Garcia, and she sat quietly in her stroller, a bit player in the vast demographic shift reshaping the Roman Catholic Church in America.

The Garcias - mom, dad and three little girls - had stopped in at the Highlandtown church to drop off a baptism form for the youngest, 1-year-old Yoselin. The Rev. Luigi Cremis, wearing a smile so wide he squinted, cooed at the dark-haired girl and chatted with her sisters, Yasmin, 2, and Estefania, 6.

As the Garcias ventured back into the bright East Baltimore sunshine, Father Luis, as everyone calls him, turned to the young patriarch, Maximo, who like his wife was born in Mexico.

"Gracias," said the priest.

For decades, Our Lady of Pompei was a solidly Italian-American center of community life. But during the past five years, the church has undergone drastic change because of new arrivals like the Garcias: Half its parishioners are now Hispanic.

Nationally, almost one-third of Catholics are Hispanic, including nearly half of those younger than 40. And while Baltimore lags behind the country - just four out of 100 Mass attendees in the archdiocese are Hispanic - the percentage has risen fourfold since 2000.

The influx of large-family Hispanic immigrants, most of them Catholic, is transforming the American church, as Pope Benedict XVI will see this week on his first papal visit to the United States. Parishes once proudly Irish, Polish, Italian or just plain American now have youthful Hispanic majorities, with their own worship styles and values.

The shift has been a boon to the church nationwide, experts say, replenishing pews that have emptied of many native-born Catholics - a balancing out that has allowed the Catholic Church to hover at about 25 percent of the overall U.S. population.

But as Our Lady of Pompei illustrates, change can beget tension: Old-timers watch "their" church metamorphose with some regret; and separate Spanish-language Masses deepen the sense of division. Church members say it's as if two parishes are merely sharing a stained-glass sanctuary.

A transformation

Moments after the Garcias left, Father Luis strode out the door. He had pastoral rounds that could serve as bookends for the brick church's eight decades at Conkling and Claremont streets, east of Patterson Park. After praying in Italian with a 94-year- old widow, he would pray in Spanish with a Mexican woman brought low by her 6-year-old son's leukemia.

The sun's glare reflected off the Formstone rowhouses on Claremont as the lanky, gray-haired 48-year-old priest loped along in leather sandals. His prized crucifix, a gift from a nun 11 years ago, bounced gently against his sweater.

For much of the last century, this area was a magnet for Italian immigrants and their descendants. Less well-known than Little Italy, this swath of working-class Highlandtown, north of Eastern Avenue and over to Greektown, was at least as worthy of the label, long-time residents insist.

Italian merchants abounded: Cicone Realty, Cerra Bros., Joe Tamburello. They're gone now, as are lots of the Italian-Americans, who moved to the suburbs or died. Now the signs say Cinco de Mayo grocery and "preparacion de taxes." Some stalwarts remain, including Zannino Funeral Home and DiPasquale's deli and grocery.

No institution has played a more pivotal role in people's lives than Our Lady of Pompei, completed in 1924 by Italian masons.

As Father Luis turned onto Eaton Street, he shouted "Hola!" to a Colombian woman he knew. A native Italian, Father Luis spent years as a missionary in Latin America before coming to Our Lady of Pompei five years ago to oversee Hispanic outreach.

He arrived at the Celenza home on Fagley Street, where Elvira Celenza, 94, was waiting inside. An immigrant to America in 1949, she sat in an easy chair, wearing a light blue robe, tinted glasses and hoop earrings. With her was her 68-year-old son, Anselmo, who attends Mass weekly, but poor health keeps her homebound. So Father Luis sometimes brings the ministry to her.

The conversation turned to the rising Hispanic population, which stretches from Fells Point along Eastern Avenue over to Dundalk. They hail largely from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras.

Anselmo Celenza lamented that he does not know his neighbors anymore. "Nobody comes out; nobody talks to us."

"It was not like that in 1960," the priest suggested, gently. "It was different, right? All Italians here."

"Oh my God, one time we had a party. I think it was Easter." Celenza gasped at his own memory. "Ooh, this block was all Italian."

"Mama mia!" exclaimed Father Luis.

Some older parishioners freely admit their unease over the changes. Take Nicholas Dulisse. He began attending Mass when he was 6. That was 70 years ago. He still goes every Sunday to the earliest of three English Masses, which together draw fewer than the 300-strong turnout at the 6 p.m. Spanish Mass.

"I guess it has been good for the church," he said of Hispanic immigration. "I have nothing against the people, don't get me wrong. It's just so many of them in the neighborhood." Yet he had misgivings about the impact on the church: "They're there to take it over; I don't feel good." And it bothers him that many Hispanics do not speak English.

Anselmo Celenza says he wishes he could turn back the clock to 1960, but since he cannot, he accepts the Hispanics as a lifeline for Our Lady of Pompei. "As long as we can hold the church," he said. "We want the church to keep going."

Throughout the visit by Father Luis, Elvira Celenza said little. Finally the priest sat opposite her, on the edge of the couch, and prayed with her in Italian. Then he gave her the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, dabbing holy oil on her forehead.

"I used to come more often," the priest said. "Now I have less time. The congregation is much grown. I am in charge of the Hispanic community."

Big faith, little money

The Rev. Luigi Esposito, a priest at Our Lady of Pompei for 44 years and its current pastor, realized at the start of this decade that Highlandtown was changing and the church had to change, too.

So in 2002, he turned to the Spanish-speaking Father Luis. "The influx of Latinos is incredible," Esposito, better known as Father Lou, marveled the other day at his church office.

The Baltimore Archdiocese began offering Spanish-language services in 1992. Of the 157 parishes, 20 now have Spanish Masses and pastoral services, said Maria Johnson, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministries. Since 2000, the number of Hispanic priests has risen from zero to eight, with more on the way.

Father Lou credits the rising Hispanic population with giving his parish a future. He estimates they make up "a good 50 percent" of the 2,500 to 3,000 members. He cannot pinpoint the total, because most Hispanics are undocumented and fear listing their names on forms.

On the other hand, the Hispanics tend to be low-paid laborers with little cash for the collection box, which, Father Lou says, strains the church's finances.

It's a nationwide phenomenon, according to Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. More than half of Hispanic Catholics earn less than $30,000 compared with a fifth of non-Hispanic Catholics. While 42 percent of Hispanic adults did not graduate from high school, that's true of only 6 percent of other Catholics.

"You have a community that is much less educated and much poorer than typical non-Hispanic Catholics," Lugo said. "I'm not saying it can't be overcome, because the Catholic Church has done this before - accommodate new waves of immigrants. It is a challenge."

Another challenge, Lugo said, is incorporating different worship styles. Hispanics often bring to Mass a "fiesta spirit" - clapping, dancing and singing accompanied by guitars and drums - that they find lacking in traditional choirs and organ music.

'Wonderful people'

At Our Lady of Pompei, Father Lou has noticed such differences, but nothing too pronounced. He also says that very few of his members have left the Catholic Church; rather, they have moved or died. He says the main division is linguistic.

"These are wonderful people, hard-working people. To me it's a shame that because of the language they have to remain like second-class citizens. The church should help them become part of the community."

Already some services, such as those held on Ash Wednesday, are bilingual. He says he hopes that "within the next few years, Latinos will start seeing themselves as Americans. After all, this church was built totally with the sweat and blood of Italian immigrants. They should be more appreciative and become part of the American community and stop the isolation which language creates."

There are Hispanic parishioners who work hard at English. "A lot of people don't want to do that," said Norma Bonilla, who moved from Mexico six years ago at 19. "If they are old, they might think, 'I don't need to learn English.' But I think it's important."

Father Lou and Father Luis put great hope on the youth, since they're usually bilingual.

For his part, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien is not too concerned about linguistic barriers. He calls Hispanics and their culture "a great gift," listing their "love of family," work ethic, "very warm" piety and attachment to the church. (More than other American Catholics, Hispanic newcomers tend to share the Vatican's positions against birth control and abortion.)

"We have to be prepared to encourage those values and to appreciate them," he said in an interview. "We have to train more priests not just in the language but in the culture." Over time, he predicted, the tension and separation will fade, as will the "upstairs-downstairs" dichotomy.

Maximo Garcia, the 31-year-old father of soon-to-be baptized Yoselin, speaks excellent English. His wife Yolanda's is decent. But they said it would never occur to them to attend an English Mass. Not only do they doubt their proficiency, but they know only other Hispanics. And they value that fellowship.

"When somebody is sick or needs help, we help each other," said Maximo, who stocks goods at a store. "If they need money or a job, we have a chance to help them" by taking up a collection.

Which is what happened when Tomas Guillen got cancer.

After leaving the Celenzas' on Fagley Street, Father Luis walked back to the church and got behind the wheel of a slightly beat-up Buick Regal. Maria Guillen was expecting him.

Inside her toy-filled home, she kept an eye on son Anthony, almost 2. But her mind was up the road at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where 6-year-old son Tomas was admitted with a fever while undergoing chemotherapy. Her husband, Ernesto, a janitor, was keeping the boy company.

Last year, Our Lady of Pompei raised $3,000 for the Guillens. Mention of that act made her emotional. She wept into her hands. "Deep feelings," she said in Spanish. "I pray the child will be completely healed."

It has been a hard year for her family. Last year, Ernesto was swept up in a raid by immigration authorities, Father Luis said, and is at risk of deportation.

Legal referrals are one of many things the church offers parishioners. And since the economic downturn, a number of Hispanics have needed food assistance. On this day, the priest gave Ernesto a ride to Hopkins.

But first things first. "OK," Father Luis said, "let's pray."


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