Face it. Sermons at times can be more tedious than uplifting, and if you don’t speak the language they can be murder. At least that’s how the families of the mostly Irish industrial workers of Tacony felt in the early 1880s when the only Catholic chapel in the area was at St. Vincent German Orphanage. The Mass was Latin, of course, but the readings, sermon (not homily), most hymns and some prayers were in German. If you didn’t spreche Deutsch you were out of luck.
They petitioned the Archbishop for an English-language parish and St. Leo the Great Church was built.
Times change. The parish has grown old gracefully and seen many of its younger generation move to greener suburban pastures. New families move in, of course, but parish secretary Carolyn Hencek noticed something different. Of eight new families registered last July and August, six were Latino and three of these spoke very little English.
Checking recent home purchases for the parish zip code, Father Joseph Farrell, pastor, and Hencek saw in recent months between 35 and 41 percent of new purchasers were Latino. Checking within that community itself it was discovered most are relatively recent arrivals from either Mexico or Central America.
The question was should St. Leo add a Mass in Spanish for those who are still struggling with English, which is to them a foreign language?
Redemptorist Father Bruce Lewandowski, the archdiocesan Vicar for Cultural Ministries, was approached, and he was pleasantly surprised. Parishes rarely ask for a Spanish Mass; it is usually the Archdiocese that suggests it. He thought it might be a good idea to test the waters, especially since none of the neighboring parishes have a Spanish Mass.
An optimum time would be around Epiphany, because the Feast of the Kings is very important in Hispanic culture, even at times bigger than Christmas itself.
The parish got to work; flyers were printed in English and Spanish. Spanish Catholic radio was notified, the parish put it on the Internet and key members of the local Hispanic community talked it up. St. Leo’s was having a Spanish language Mass on Saturday evening Jan. 7, followed by a Three Kings Party in the former convent. No one knew how many would come.
The Mass, celebrated by Father Lewandowski with Father Farrell concelebrating and backed by a Spanish choir from Visitation B.V.M. and St. Martin of Tours was actually attended by more than 100 adults and 30 children, well exceeding expectations.
“We are excited that St. Leo’s first Spanish-language Mass was so well received, and we are open to the possibility of a weekly ministry,” Father Farrell said.
“It was nicely attended and the pastor and staff were very supportive,” Father Lewandowski said. “The Feast of the Kings is near and dear to Hispanics.” As for the future, he cautioned, that is still in the discernment stage.
The goal is to have a Spanish Mass and pastoral ministry, but the greatest stumbling block is the shortage of priests available for Hispanic ministry, according to Father Lewandowski. “Pray for Spanish-speaking vocations,” he said.
For those who attended it was an experience definitely to be repeated.
“I was surprised how many people came,” said Colombia-born Betty Sanchez, now a Tacony resident. “I thought it was amazing and I had a great experience. I’m sure people would come if we did it again. I already have people asking me when the next Mass is.”
Frances Galindez is originally from Puerto Rico and has been living in Tacony for several years but did not register with St. Leo until this summer. Although she is a history teacher at Archbishop Ryan High School and speaks perfect English, she prefers to attend Mass in Spanish. “It has a different feel,” she said.
She was delighted when Hencek contacted her about the proposed Three Kings Mass, and willingly helped publicize it.
“There were more people there than I expected,” she said. “They want to try to do it more often and I hope they do.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.