Participants recite a prayer in Spanish to begin their meeting. (Sarah Webb)

The Monday evening Spanish language study group at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Northeast Philadelphia always begins with a Spanish translation of a prayer for the family written by St. John Paul II.

It says in part, “Grant that your grace may guide the thoughts and actions of husbands and wives for the good of their families and of all of the families of the world. Grant that the young may find in the family solid support for their human dignity and for their growth in truth and love.”

The prayer is a lead-in to the fundamental text studied by the group, St. John Paul’s 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, “Familiaris Consortio” (“Of Family Partnership”).

“We present the program based on the document; we put it into words the people can understand,” said Margarita Marlin, who along with her husband Yvan, is a leader of the group.

The presentation might also have words from Father Rafael Vargas, the group’s chaplain, plus feedback on the lesson, small group discussion and even individual counseling.

“We feel the family is the first step for a good society,” Margarita said. “If we care about families we work to strengthen the family.”

The meetings at St. Martin’s, which have been going on for a year and a half, generally attract 30 to 60 couples or individuals ranging from their 20s through their 70s. Even some children come along and they are given an age-appropriate session in another room.

Children stay active in a separate room while their parents study and pray at St. Martin of Tours Church. (Sarah Webb)

Within the Latino community the meetings are multi-cultural, drawing at this time from the Dominican Republic and from Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica or wherever Spanish is the native tongue.

The real objects of the program are faith-strengthening and family strengthening. Among the positive fruits of the sessions have been several baptisms, reception of sacraments and even weddings of previously unmarried couples. Through the program some have gone on religious retreats or become part of the Cursillo movement.

It helps that both Margarita and Yvon are trained psychotherapists. Although they provide their service free at the meetings, in their professional life they are both therapists at Nueva Vida Behavioral Health Care on Allegheny Avenue.

“I studied medicine in the Dominican Republic and have master’s degrees from Holy Family University and the Universidad Autonomo de Santo Domingo,” said Margarita, who was originally from the Dominican Republic and has lived in the Philadelphia area for the past two decades.

“We support the community when they need some kind of intervention,” Margarita said. “They can’t pay for therapy, but we are here to help them to handle family situations.”

Perhaps non-Hispanics cannot fully appreciate how truly diverse Hispanic culture is. In this study group the glue is faith and family, but certainly with variations within that.

Edison Bonilla, a Honduran who has been in Philadelphia for seven years, finds the group brings him closer to the church and to love. “We learn a lot from the Bible with an approach to the family,” he said.

Since coming, “in my opinion I have a more active involvement with the church and in its activities and my family,” he said. “I think my wife Rosanna and I are closer; we have a stronger relationship and a stronger commitment with God.”

Becky Espanol has been coming for a year and two months. In her case the commitment to God has been strong for a long time. Her husband of 30 years, Manuel Beltran, will be ordained a permanent deacon next year and they have been sharing his faith journey through his studies. They have three children, a 29-year-old daughter and twins with disabilities who are 24.

“Through the group we study what marriage means, understanding ourselves as human beings and how we are created by God,” she said. “We are biological; we have demands from both sides — how we can be better Christians, better parents and better brothers and sisters in the church. We look around and try to understand, not to be judgmental, and support each other in the community.”

Adalisa DeJesus has been coming for a year and a half. She and her boyfriend have three children.

“I love coming here, I can’t wait until Mondays,” she said. “It is like friends and family.”

Does she plan to marry? “Yes,” she said. “We are taking classes for marriage, maybe at the end of this year.”

Yvan Marlin, whose degrees are from the Universidad Autonomo de Santo Domingo, like his wife, believes that the group is an opportunity for them to give back.

“We’ve been coming to St. Martin for 10 years,” he said. As for the group, “I like the philosophy, how the people respond. It is like a family.”

While he and Margarita do provide free psychological counseling informally but privately to individuals if they come to the meeting on a one-on-one basis, “It is our dream to have it as a ministry at St. Martin’s,” he said.