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Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Reaching Out To Hispanics; The Venice Diocese Offers Spanish-Language Mass And Outreach To A Growing Population


May 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

VENICE -- When Father Esteban Soy started ministering in Florida in the 1950s, his was one of the rare Spanish voices the Catholic Church had in the Sunshine State.

Speaking from Glades County, where he has been posted after coming out of retirement in Spain three years ago, the man who was rector of Epiphany Cathedral for 23 years reminisced Tuesday about how much South Florida has been changed by the growth of the Hispanic population, now the largest minority group in the United States.

"When I first came, the whole city of Miami had just one (Catholic) service in Spanish every week," Soy said. "Now some of these places have more services in Spanish than in English."

Today, Soy is one of more than two dozen priests who tend to the 150,000 Hispanics in the 10-county Venice Diocese.

In 2000, they made up between 3 percent and 5 percent of the population of Charlotte and Sarasota counties; in Manatee County, that number was almost 10 percent.

As the Hispanic population has exploded in the past few years, the Catholic Church has adapted to serve its new members, offering social services, education and Spanish-language spiritual guidance.

On any given Sunday, the diocese offers Spanish-language Mass to more than 25,000 people, said Father Celestino Gutierrez, who heads the diocese's outreach programs to migrants and Spanish speakers.

Area Hispanics have so embraced those programs that some were upset when word got out that one Spanish-language Mass might be eliminated.

On Tuesday, about 20 Hispanics from Sarasota and Charlotte counties gathered in front of the diocese building, demanding to meet with Bishop John Nevins.

They raised concerns that their new pastor, Jerome Kaywell, has suggested eliminating the Spanish-language Mass at Sacred Heart in Punta Gorda, which is led by a Venezuelan priest, Vicente Martin.

Kaywell did not return a phone call Tuesday, but others in the diocese suggested that his parishioners may have misunderstood him.

"The diocese usually boasts about the number of languages we celebrate in," McGrath said.

The service, which attracts around 200 people, half of whom don't speak English, is also attended by residents of Port Charlotte and North Port.

"We come 22 miles from North Port just to listen to him," said Lydia Harbison, one of the group who met with diocese spokeswoman Gail McGrath on Tuesday.

"We want to continue to practice our faith like our ancestors did," said Adolfo Criscuolo, who moved to Punta Gorda from Puerto Rico 19 years ago.

The group was assured that the church is still committed to ministering in Spanish.

"You certainly would not want to deny any population of the spiritual guidance that they need," McGrath said.

The diocese ministers in languages that include Polish, Vietnamese and Creole, but Spanish is far more widespread.

According to census data, there were 38.8 million Hispanics in the United States as of July 2002, when they overtook blacks as the nation's largest minority.

Hispanics are also the fastest-growing group in the country, accounting for more than half the population growth in the two years since that last census.

Guttierez said ministering in the church-goers' native tongue is of prime importance.

"If you pray in your language, it means something to you," he said.

He said the number of Hispanic churchgoers at St. Martha's in Sarasota grew from 25 when he started working there 18 years ago to 2,000 divided in three separate Sunday services today.

But, he added, the church also tries to integrate foreign-born Hispanics into American society, helping them learn English and understand the laws while also permitting them to maintain their culture.

Soy offered examples of how the church has adapted to the changing face of Hispanic immigration.

As more and more Hispanics move out of migrant jobs in agriculture into more stable ones such as construction and services, their children can attend school more regularly and get an education, he said.

"Now the dream is to provide after-school services," Soy said.

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