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Spanish Prayers Spanning 50 Years; Our Lady Of Fatima A Passaic Mainstay
By SAMANTHA HENRY, SPECIAL TO THE RECORD
20 December 2004
PASSAIC - It may not be difficult to find religious services in Spanish these days, but it wasn't so easy in 1954, when Our Lady of Fatima opened its doors as the first Spanish-language Catholic church in the Paterson Diocese.
Fifty years later, the church is still serving a population of Spanish-speaking newcomers, although the congregation has changed from the founding Puerto Rican families to a membership that is now more than 60 percent Mexican.
The story of how Our Lady of Fatima came into being has as its central figure a dynamic Spanish-speaking immigrant priest, but from an unlikely place: China.
Father Thaddeus Lee, born Gin Gintzeng in 1925 in China, arrived as a young priest in 1954 to work with the bishop of Paterson. Having recently studied in Spain, he brought his newly acquired language skills to minister to the local Spanish-speaking population.
"I started letting people know there's a Chinese priest speaking Spanish, and let them know there was someone to help the newcomers," Lee, now 79, said from his home in Ocean County, where he moved after retiring in 1995.
Although Masses were in Latin - an edict of the Catholic Church before the 1960s reforms of Vatican II - all other aspects of the service, from sermons to confessions, were conducted in Spanish.
As word of Lee's services grew, and the Hispanic immigrant population increased, the group that would eventually become the Fatima congregation started to expand.
"The first month it was in a meeting room, with about six or eight people, and it was slowly growing," Lee said of the place where Fatima's members first met, in the spare room of a different local church.
"From the meeting room we held our meetings in the basement of the church, and in 1956 we bought the Netherland Reform Church, and [by then] had about 200 to 250 people."
Jose Antonio Rivera is one of the few founding parishioners who still lives in Passaic. Now 74, he remembered the early days of moving into the rundown church before it was renovated.
"We started having Masses there, and then we started working," Rivera said. "Everybody brought their tools from home. We worked hard; we'd work until 2 or 3 in the morning."
Rivera, who immigrated from Puerto Rico as a 19-year-old in the 1950s, was married by Lee in the church. He recalled how several of the founding families, including one of his cousins, mortgaged their homes to raise the money to buy the old church, and that everyone, including the priest, pitched in to rebuild it.
"Father Lee was an angel, he did wonders for us," Rivera said. "He even did carpentry, plumbing and electrical work on the church. You cannot find a priest today to do everything he did."
The church - which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year - is under renovation once again, although it still stands in its original location on Exchange Place, off Main Avenue in Passaic, where it has been since 1960.
Pastor Gilberto Gutierrez, a Colombian priest assigned to the church four years ago, stood amid the construction dust recently and explained how the spirit of Fatima's mission remains very much the same.
"We continue to serve the Hispanic immigrants who arrive here and feel they have no home. We hope they feel at home here, where they can hear the language of home," he said.
Gutierrez said that although there have been changes over the decades - the church's convent and day-care center both have been phased out - the issues that parishioners face haven't changed.
"The problems are the same: a lot of poverty, people coming to a society that they are completely unfamiliar with, and trying to find a job," Gutierrez said.
He said that people tend to go to the church that is nearest to their home these days, unlike the core group of families that faithfully attended Fatima when it was the only option around.
Another aspect of the church's mission that has remained the same is the emphasis on members' retaining their own culture while trying to assimilate to life in America. Lee said he always emphasized to his parishioners the importance of learning English, even as he offered religious services in Spanish.
"At that time, I thought every nationality should have its own congregation," Lee said.
"All the other churches had priests from their own nationalities - except ours; it was a Spanish congregation started by a Chinese priest - but the need was there."