Celebration brings Hispanics closer together

COLUMBIA — The pews at St. John Neumann Church were overflowing with Hispanic families and friends from across the state. People came in record numbers to attend the 2004 Hispanic Celebration that began with an outdoor procession before Mass and ended with food and festivities. The event was sponsored by the Diocese of Charleston.

“Welcome once again to all of our wonderful Hispanic Community from various parts of the state of South Carolina,” Bishop Robert J. Baker said during his homily, presented in Spanish.

With Pope John Paul II declaring this the Year of the Eucharist, the bishop praised the Hispanics for their great love for the Eucharist shown through their lively and faith-filled celebrations of holy Mass.

The bishop said, “You bring us the rich experience of family life. In your countries, family life is fostered. In our country, family life is often undermined by the secular values and materialistic preoccupations of individualism — of a culture centered on the individual rather than the family or the community.”

He also acknowledged their deep respect for life and love for the Blessed Mother.

“Help us see and appreciate these values of faith, family life, and respect for human life that you hold so dear,” he concluded.

Following Mass, Father Filemon Juya, vicar for Hispanic Ministry, addressed the people and gave them an outline of the diocesan pastoral plan for Hispanics that included ideas for education, leadership, and faith issues.

He shared some interesting facts about the demographics of the rapidly growing Hispanic population, with three-fourths under the age of 36. There are approximately 100,000 Hispanics in South Carolina alone, and it is obvious that efforts are needed to keep this predominately Catholic population active in the church.

“We [the Hispanics] are not here to give our problems to the diocese, but to be part of the solution for any future difficulties we may face together,” Father Juya said.

The pastoral plan includes suggestions for leadership development, such as encouraging children to stay in school — especially important for youth who are still learning the English language. Additional time in school can be extremely beneficial in creating successful Hispanic leaders who can work to bridge the two cultures.

Presently few Hispanics attend Catholic schools in South Carolina, but the schools can still help in the education effort by making classrooms available for the youth in the evenings and during the summer months.

“Twenty years ago, when I moved to South Carolina, I prayed for the day that my children could receive their religious instruction in Spanish and I could attend Mass in Spanish,” said Alicia de Meyers, a parishioner at St. John Neumann and the translator for the pastoral plan. “Being present at this celebration, I can say that we have certainly come a long way since that time.”

The celebration continued with a lunch reception for nearly 1,000 people. Anna Santana organized the food preparation with the help of several women. The food was representative of many Hispanic countries.

“I believe the celebration is important because it brings us (the Hispanic community) together,” said Rhina Medina, who was in charge of the entertainment this year.

She said that the day was a perfect opportunity to “celebrate our culture which is made up of different countries, yet there is so much that we share.”

The entertainment represented Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil. Traditional dances such as the marimba and zamba were performed. A newly formed Hispanic youth group from St. John Neumann, the “Amigos,” performed dances native to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

“Seeing the dances and listening to the music gives us a feeling of home, and we no longer feel lonely,” said Medina.

Maria Mandakovic was delighted to have the opportunity to meet more Hispanics. She recently moved from South Florida to South Carolina.

The Casarez family brought their children to the event so that they could reacquaint them with their cultural background. Ten-year-old Morgan wanted to learn more about his Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, while his younger brother, Jaden, was looking forward to the music and the food.

“It was a wonderful celebration, bigger and better than last year,” Father Juya said. “Our Hispanic community understands the importance of coming together and felt a part of the diocese. We are no longer strangers but family.”