Dia de la Hispanidad celebrates faith, culture


COLUMBIA — So many people came to enjoy a diocese-wide celebration of Hispanic faith and culture on Oct. 12 that the unthinkable happened: a church function had no leftover food.

Perhaps as many as a thousand souls packed the huge gymnasium at St. John Neumann School for the first annual Dia de la Raza/Dia de la Hispanidad (Day of the Race/Day of the Hispanic).

The celebration featured a solemn Mass of ordination for the first two permanent Hispanic deacons from the Diocese of Charleston (see article above), a colorful procession full of icons and costumes from many Latino countries, speeches by the Bishop of Charleston, the diocesan director of social ministry and the vicar general, and a history of Hispanic Catholics in South Carolina. Interspersed among the talking were songs and dances from Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Colombia.

“We sent a letter of invitation to every parish and individual, and we relied on Hispanic leaders to recruit from our local communities,” said Kathleen Merritt, director of the diocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries.

Marina Valencia was chair of the celebration day, and Maria Smoak was co-chair.

Bishop Robert J. Baker called it “a breakthrough day” that signified God’s special blessings for the Hispanic community in South Carolina. He and Father Rick LaBrecque, vicar for Hispanic Ministry, said that the number of Catholics of Hispanic descent continues to multiply in the diocese and that it was time to gather some of them from around the state. Father Filemon Juya, a Hispanic leader of the Midlands, said some of the smaller Hispanic communities benefited from the massive day of celebration.

“Bishop Baker wanted a special day for all the Hispanic communities in the diocese. This way, smaller ones don’t feel so alone when they see that there are many of their brothers and sisters in South Carolina. It lifts their spirits up; it shows them what Catholic means,” Father Juya said.

Sister Elsa Maria López-Aguero, an Oblate Sister of Providence from Baltimore who served here for decades, has written a history of Spanish-speaking Catholics in South Carolina. She said that it started small, but started a long time ago.

“I want to emphasize that the church has looked at Hispanics since before Vatican II in the Diocese of Charleston,” Sister López-Aguero said. “God gave the diocese a mustard seed, and it has grown little by little over the years.”

Recent growth has been phenomenal. Many parishes now have weekly masses in Spanish, including the host parish for Dia de la Hispanidad, St. John Neumann, and St. Mary in Greenville. The pastor of St. Mary, Father Jay Scott Newman, said that 1,600 worshippers attend the two Spanish-language masses his parish offers each weekend.

Sherman Gaskins of St. Phillip in Lake City, whose family came with a Hispanic family for the fiesta, said that more and more migrant farmhands are settling into the area instead of going back to Latin America after the harvest. Part of his parish’s ministry to them, Gaskins said, is to teach them to adjust their former trades and professions to Carolina culture, so that they will no longer be dependent on picking crops for a living here.

Bishop Baker, who studied in Puerto Rico and then taught in a bilingual seminary, said that as Hispanics are becoming more and more important to his diocese, he is enlisting the help of an order of nuns in Guadalajara, the Southeastern Pastoral Institute (SEPI) and diocesan missionary Msgr. J. Donald Gorski to effect “interchanges” of sisters, priests and seminarians who know the language and culture.

“I’m hoping to go (to Latin America) myself,” the bishop said.

As word of the Dia de la Hispanidad celebration spreads, the bishop will probably have many invitations to return the hospitality his diocese demonstrated at its celebration of Hispanic faith and culture.