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Lancaster New Era/Intelligencer Journal

Lancaster County Is Home To First Official Hispanic Parish; Diocese Raises Status Of San Juan Bautista

By Lori Van Ingen

June 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Lancaster New Era/Intelligencer Journal, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

San Juan Bautista Catholic Church Tuesday became the first official Hispanic parish in the 15 counties of the Diocese of Harrisburg.

In an official decree, Bishop Nicholas C. Dattilo elevated the quasi-parish at 425 S. Duke St. to the "personal parish" status "in order to provide pastoral care and ministry for the Spanish- speaking persons and those of Hispanic heritage within Lancaster County and to provide for the effective preaching of the Gospel among these persons."

The Rev. Allan F. Wolfe, administrator of the church since 2001, was appointed pastor of the parish. The Rev. Ignacio Palomino is the church's parochial vicar.

On June 14, the church purchased a building at 123 Locust St., which also contains the offices of District Justice Richard H. Simms.

"God provided space for us to grow into," Wolfe said. The building will be used as a large parish center, gymnasium, youth center, thrift store and possibly a day-care center run by Catholic Charities.

In 1996, the diocese reorganized its parishes because of shifting demographics, Wolfe said. At that time, all ethnic parishes merged with other parishes or became territorial parishes. Currently, there are multicultural, bilingual parishes in York, Gettysburg, Chambersburg, Harrisburg and Lebanon.

With the elevation of San Juan Bautista to an official parish, it becomes the only completely Hispanic parish in the diocese, Wolfe said. The church, which has more than 3,000 registered members, is mainly composed of Hispanics from Puerto Rico, Colombia and Mexico with a smattering of parishioners from other countries including the Dominican Republic, Peru, Cuba, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Argentina, Venezuela, Panama, El Salvador, Ecuador and Honduras.

By 2010, the county's Hispanic population is expected to total 45,000, and the parish must serve all of them, Wolfe said.

Alexsandra Flores, a 2003 Lancaster Catholic High School graduate, was excited about reading the Scriptures during the Solemn Mass that celebrated the congregation's official parish status.

"I grew up in this church," said Flores, whose grandparents, Carmen and the late Eladio Flores, helped to found the church in 1982. "It's cool to have that in your background. It gives you a sense of pride."

Eucharistic minister Carmen Navarro, a Lancaster resident and church member for 20 years, said, "I'm excited to be part of this history. I'm glad my son (10-year-old Ricardo) was able to experience this also. We had hoped we would become a parish, and I'm glad to be a part of it."

Assistant pastor Carmen Cruz said the church's new status is a dream come true. Although excited, she also is a bit sad because seeing the church become a parish was her late mother's dream. "A year before she died, she said, "Don't give up. Work hard and the church will be ours one day,'" Cruz said.

Becoming an official parish after 21 years of working hard is "a triumph for us," Cruz said. "At last, we have something that belongs to us. It's a place where we worship God, but also a place to provide help to the community. Not only Hispanics, but the entire community can go here to find God and help for their needs -- food, counseling, someone to listen to them."

The Rev. Bernardo Pistone, pastor of the quasi-parish from 1988 to 2001 and former pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church, said it is "certainly a wonderful recognition of the church to give the Hispanic community a home. I compare it to renting an apartment (versus) buying a house."

After a large number of Hispanics migrated to the county in the 1950s, the Diocese of Harrisburg recognized there was a need to help them. St. Mary's Catholic Church on South Prince Street began holding a Mass in Spanish. Then, in 1972, some Hispanics started meeting in the basement of St. Anthony's Catholic Church on East Orange Street, where they felt like "boarders or visitors passing through," deacon Expedito Santos said.

In 1982, Bishop Joseph T. Daley purchased the South Duke Street building for a new congregation, San Juan Bautista. In 1988, Bishop William H. Keeler, now Cardinal of Baltimore, designated the church a quasi-parish.

A quasi-parish is a temporary designation leading in one of two directions, Wolfe said. Either the need will no longer be there and the church will close, or there will be growth, stability and continuing need to make it a full-fledged parish of its own.

"(Officially becoming a parish) is a new beginning with more responsibilities and more challenges," Santos said.

Members of the congregation will slowly assume their share of the financial responsibility for Resurrection School and Lancaster Catholic High School, along with the responsibilities of evangelization, teaching the children and living out their faith, Wolfe said.

Pistone said it is "most incredible for the Hispanics to have a home away from home. Where they can say, "This is our church where they speak our language and have Mass in our cultural ways.' It's a most incredible gift the Church can give to the Hispanics of Lancaster. It reaffirms and respects the gifts the first generation (of Hispanics) bring to the Church.

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