Hispanics organizing in the diocese


BATESBURG — The Diocese of Charleston is trying to capture the wind. At least, that is how it must seem to those involved in the effort to organize a ministry to Hispanic Catholics. Hispanics are spread across the state, often in out-of-the-way migrant camps, are undercounted, culturally and linguistically foreign, unregistered in parishes and disparate themselves. They come from a huge geographic area and generally from an uneducated laborer class in their home countries. They resist organization.

Still, most are Roman Catholics and they have many effective advocates in the diocese. Hispanics also bring with them to South Carolina an affinity for the church.

“Hispanic culture is a very Christian culture, so this type of activity fits in well,” said Marcos Anders, an Argentine from St. Theresa the Little Flower in Summerville.

The activity Anders was referring to was a meeting held at St. John of the Cross on Oct. 20, part of a series of meetings designed to coordinate church representation for the tens of thousands of Hispanics residing here now. The main objective of the Batesburg meeting was to form a Hispanic Leadership Council, a representative body that would facilitate inclusion of Hispanics as one more unique component of the church.

“It’s important that our church embraces the different cultures in our diocese,” said Kathleen Merritt, director of the diocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries. “We need to make sure that all groups maintain their own culture and that everyone else can accept it as a gift.”

Merritt’s dicastery includes the Office of Black Catholics, the Office of Vietnamese Catholics and the Office of Hispanic Catholics. She said her office was taking its cue from the Hispanic representatives themselves in its search for leadership among the Hispanic Catholics.

“We’re not doing the leading, they are. Our agenda is based on what I’m getting from them through my office.”

Alice Ingram of St. Jude’s in Sumter said that each of the dozens of Hispanic communities selected representatives for one of the four deaneries: “Each deanery will bring its needs to the (diocesan) ministry.” They will comprise the Hispanic Leadership Council.

Ministry to Latinos and other Spanish-speaking peoples is not new to the Diocese of Charleston, but it has experienced a long and fitful genesis. Father ‘Rick LaBrecque, vicar for Hispanic Ministry, said that the Batesburg meeting was giving the movement “fresh impetus.”

“It’s been wonderful. We have 17 different communities represented, and we’ve been collecting information. For instance, we now know that masses in Spanish are being celebrated in 52 locations in the diocese,” Father LaBrecque said.

The nearly 50 representatives at the Oct. 20 meeting originated from 10 different countries, although fully 80 percent of the Hispanics in the state hail from Mexico, according to Father Filemon Juya, host of the meeting and sacramental priest to 13 Hispanic communities in the Midlands Deanery. He was impressed with the cooperation among the communities represented.

“They are making it work,” Father Juya said. “This is a new era, and I am very optimistic.”

The Colombian priest cited the success of the host parish as an example of how traditional Catholic faith communities can accommodate new Catholic cultures (see related article below). And he was convinced of the main need of Hispanic Catholics in South Carolina.

“We need many, many Spanish-speaking priests,” he said. “We probably need some from Mexico, because the pastoral way of working is different there.”

Merritt said that other needs of Hispanic Catholics are similar to that of all Catholics: cultural events in their own background, more emphasis on the spiritual development of their youth and a direct connection to the diocese. She praised the bishop of Charleston for his support of Hispanic ministry. She also said that more young people are involved in the Hispanic ministry than in any other ethnic ministry in the diocese, an indication of the priority religion has in the lives of Hispanics.

Biculturalism works at John of the Cross

BATESBURG — Kathleen Merritt, director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries, said that the members of the church of Charleston “… need to embrace the different cultures in our diocese.” At tiny St. John of the Cross, a mission parish administratively attached to Corpus Christi in Lexington, that kind of acceptance has renewed church life to such an extent that the priest there believes it could serve as a model for parishes across the state.

“This is the ideal situation,” said Father Filemon Juya. “The two communities get along very well, mostly because the Anglo community is very open; they are pleased to have the Hispanics here.”

As a consequence of that welcoming attitude, the Hispanics at John of the Cross now outnumber the non-Hispanics. The parish has a Spanish mass on Saturday evening and another Sunday morning.

“This is like a sandwich. We have a Spanish Mass at 9, Sunday School at 9:45 and an English Mass at 11,” the priest said.

All teachers and texts are bilingual and both communities’ children attend. Parish events are bicultural also. Father Juya thinks that the Holy Spirit is at work in this faith community, one of 13 he serves as sacramental priest. Lay leader Jane Hayden agrees.

“This is a pretty accepting parish. People feel safe here,” Hayden said.

She said that the five-year evolution of the parish persona is both ongoing and moderating.

“They (the Latinos) are becoming more Anglo, and there’s a move toward the middle class. The parish is now mostly made up of families,” the middle school teacher said. “And it continues to work. This is not a one-trick pony; it’s built on a real foundation of faith underlying it all.”

Hayden also admitted to having “a secret ingredient” to help the process along: the leadership of Father Filemon Juya.