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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Hispanics Transform Face Of Catholicism In South Florida

By James D. Davis

April 11, 2004
Copyright © 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Hundreds of solemn believers from St. Juliana Catholic Church made the Way of the Cross procession around their neighborhood on Good Friday, retracing the steps of their Savior -- a vivid picture of devotions by thousands of Hispanics worshiping this Holy Week throughout the Palm Beach Diocese.

This distinctive service and others throughout the year are an indication of how much this once largely Anglo diocese has changed.

Cubans, Mexicans and Dominicans conduct festivals for the Virgin Mary. They pack churches for Spanish-language Mass. During Holy Week, they kiss crosses and re-enact the last steps of Jesus. And they feel most comfortable worshiping in their own language.

For the Palm Beach Diocese, it has meant struggling to keep up. The Hispanic Ministry sponsors Spanish-language Mass in 24 parishes and missions, nearly half of the 53 parishes in the diocese. Only 22 Spanish-speaking priests are available to serve them -- not nearly enough.

"Some of them handle more than one parish, yet many parishes need more than one priest," said Sister Vivian Gonzalez, a member of the parish and associate director of Hispanic ministries for the five-county Catholic diocese. "With more Spanish-language priests, we could have a lot more groups. Whenever we start a Hispanic group, it grows right away.

"We do promote learning English," she added, "but worshiping God is so personal. In a second language, it doesn't feel the same."

As in the older and larger Archdiocese of Miami, just about every country in Latin America is represented in the Diocese of Palm Beach. You can see it in the schedule of Marian festivals, which venerate the Virgin Mary, at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Delray Beach. For Dominicans, it's Our Lady of Altagracia. For Cubans, it's Our Lady of Charity. For Puerto Ricans, there's Our Lady of Providence. And for Mexicans, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

"Relationships are important to us," Sister Vivian said. "And when so many of us are far away from home, they feel at home at a parish."

This relational approach is typical, and carried over by many in a view of the Almighty -- mi Diosito, or "my little God."

"You'd never hear that from Anglo or German Catholics. They think of a God who is distant," said the Most Rev. Felipe Estevez, the Havana-born auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Miami. "But for us, it's an endearing term. We feel affectionate toward God and keep him close to the heart."

New congregations

Hispanics live throughout the five-county diocese, which extends north to Indian River County. But they cluster in the middle of Palm Beach County.

Three parishes have at least 2,000 Hispanics attending weekly -- St. Juliana and Holy Name of Jesus in West Palm Beach, and St. Luke in Lake Worth. Other parishes have Spanish-language Masses, including St. Mary in Pahokee, Holy Cross in Indiantown and St. Joan of Arc in Boca Raton.

At St. Jude in Boca Raton, 30 to 40 people first attended a Spanish Mass nine years ago. Now, St. Jude has 250 each Sunday.

Our Lady Queen of Peace has grown and diversified in the last decade as housing expanded westward. Three Spanish Masses are said weekly, including Vigil Mass on Saturday nights.

And major observances at the church are trilingual -- adding Portuguese for Brazilian professionals who have moved in over the last four years.

"All the seats are usually taken," said Minnie Garcia, a youth minister and coordinator for religious education at Our Lady Queen of Peace. "Usually, there are open seats only when there's an English Mass."

As with Hispanic Roman Catholics elsewhere, they are drawn to observances like the Stations of the Cross, a series of devotions based on the 14 events in the last day of Jesus' earthly life. Often, as at St. Juliana in West Palm Beach, parishioners walk around the neighborhood on Good Friday, re-enacting the events in a walk known as Via Crucis.

"Many people in Latin America have suffered oppression and hunger and illness," said Sixto Garcia, a theologian at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. "They find a natural connection with what Jesus went through."

The 1.5-year-old Our Lady Queen of Peace building hearkens to the working-class roots of most members. Built in a Spanish mission style, it has stained-glass windows showing farm workers and travelers. It includes a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico.

The sanctuary is the hub of a village: a clinic, a secondhand store, a two-story parish hall and catechism school.

"I've taught children who marry and move away, but bring their children to be baptized here," said Minnie Garcia, who has worked in the ministry for 32 years. "That's why we've remained a mission, with no parish boundaries. People still come out of a sense of relationship and tradition. They feel at home."

Numbers increase

No one -- including diocesan officials who minister to them -- can say for sure how many Hispanics are in the Diocese of Palm Beach.

But in 2002, the National Resource Research Center did a national study of Catholics. For the Palm Beach Diocese, the California-based center estimated that 40 percent to 50 percent of the Catholics under 30 were Hispanic.

That matches an estimate by the Southeast Pastoral Institute, a Hispanic outreach by the U.S. bishops. The Miami-based institute says half of all parishioners in both the archdiocese and the Palm Beach Diocese are Catholic.

In eight southeastern states, the number of Hispanics doubled from 1995 to 2000, according to Sister Vivian.

Hispanic ministries are more established in the Miami archdiocese, where at least half of the 1.4 million members are Latin American. From their historic base in Miami-Dade County, they have expanded northward as parishioners have moved into Broward.

Vigorous, well-established Hispanic groups worship at St. Stephen parish in Miramar, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Fort Lauderdale, St. Boniface in Pembroke Pines and St. Bonaventure in Davie. And in Weston, St. Katharine Drexel has been heavily Latin American since it opened in 2001. Its pastor, the Rev. Paul Edwards, is one of several Anglo priests who are fluent in Spanish.

Change of heart

Spanish-speaking Catholics didn't always find a warm welcome, Minnie Garcia recalls

"For their meetings, they'd get the room without the air-conditioning," she said. "And during Mass, they'd be asked to move with their noisy children to the crying room. That was offensive, because Hispanics value going to church with their families.

"It's changing now, just because of the numbers," Garcia said. "And our bishops have made an effort to make sure Hispanics are received in the parishes."

In Miami, church officials resisted setting up separate Spanish Masses in the 1960s and early '70s, fearing they would divide the archdiocese, Bishop Estevez recalled. They finally gave in around the mid-1970s -- and the Masses increased attendance.

Nowadays, both South Florida Catholic seminaries -- St. John Vianney in Miami and St. Vincent de Paul in Boynton Beach -- require "minimal competence" in Spanish: an ability to say the Mass, hear confessions and minister to the sick.

By 2025, Hispanics will account for nearly half of all American Catholics, theologian Sixto Garcia said, citing an expert with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "At this time, Hispanics are doing much of the evangelism in the American Catholic Church," Garcia said. "It's like the Irish and the Italian presence in past centuries."

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