CS&T Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA ─ Several priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are hitting the books to learn Spanish. {{more}}

Some stay local, others travel abroad, but they all do it to better serve the Hispanic Catholic community.

“The community is growing every day,” said Father Vincent Tung The Pham, a parochial vicar at Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia. “I need to learn Spanish so I can serve them well, especially the youth.”

Father Vincent, a native of Vietnam, left his home country as a refugee when the communists took over South Vietnam. He spent some time in Thailand in a refugee camp before arriving in Philadelphia, where he was accepted into St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. He was ordained in 1985 and it is the second time he has served at Holy Innocents catering to the Vietnamese community in the Juniata Park section of Philadelphia.

However, with the increasing number of registered Latino families in his parish, Father Vincent wanted to learn a third language to be able to offer the Mass.

He vacationed in the Dominican Republic with the relatives of one of his parishioners in order to learn to celebrate the Mass in Spanish. One of the family members helped him write his homilies and coached him on his pronunciation. By the end of his stay there he was celebrating Mass in Spanish, and when he returned to Holy Innocents he asked his pastor, Father Thomas Higgins, if he could offer the Spanish Mass.

Father Vincent also approached Msgr. Timothy Senior, the archdiocesan vicar for clergy, and expressed his desire to learn Spanish. Msgr. Senior helped him find a six-week intensive Spanish language program in Puebla, Mexico – offered through the International Institute for Culture – and financially and spiritually assisted him so he would be able to do it.

The program offered small classes pairing students at the same language level. Students also were immersed in the culture and visited historical sites in and around Puebla and visited Cholula, Mexico City, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

He recently returned from Mexico completing the third level of a five- level course and says he absolutely loves the school, the teacher, the language and the culture, and is indebted to Msgr. Senior and Father Higgins for the experience.

He hopes to finish the last two levels so he is completely fluent in the language, he said.

Holy Innocents is a multicultural parish with a mix of Caucasians, African-Americans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos, explained Father Higgins, who is also learning Spanish, but “about 40 percent of the parish is now Hispanic,” he said.

In 2004 Father Higgins, along with Vincentian priests and sisters, began reaching out to the Hispanic community within the parish boundaries and inviting them to the Spanish Mass he was celebrating at the parish. Soon he was doing baptisms, weddings, and funerals too, and the Spanish he had learned at the Maryknoll Language Institute in Bolivia was helping him get by.

However, Father Higgins realized that it wasn’t enough. He wasn’t comfortable hearing confessions in Spanish and couldn’t comfort the sick or dying as he would like, so he returned to Cochabamba, Bolivia this summer for another month of one-on-one intensive language classes at the institute. There he lived with a Bolivian family sharing meals with them and practicing his Spanish.

Msgr. Hugh Shields had recommended the program to Father Higgins, describing it as “the Harvard of Spanish-language schools,” Father Higgins said.

Father Christopher Redcay, the pastor of Our Lady of Ransom Parish in Philadelphia, stayed local and attended the week-long intensive Spanish course at the Catholic Institute for Evangelization.

Approximately 15 percent of his parish consists of Latinos although Father Redcay is aware that there are more Spanish-speaking immigrants within his parish boundaries who aren’t attending his Masses. He hopes by learning Spanish he will be able to “meet the needs of the Spanish people in our area,” he said.

He spent four hours at the Institute from Monday through Friday with 10 other students. The day was a mix of conversational ice breakers, Spanish vocabulary bingo and classroom lessons.

“It was a great experience and the teacher was phenomenal,” Father Redcay said.

By Sunday of that week, he had a few of his Spanish-speaking parishioners ask him how the course went, and tested him a little.

“I was able to respond and they were so excited and appreciative that I was able to say something to them in Spanish,” Father Redcay said.

He hopes eventually to be comfortable enough with the language to make home visits, bring the Eucharist to the Spanish-speaking home-bound and hear confessions in Spanish.

CS&T staff writer Nadia Maria Smith may be reached at or (215) 965-4614.