By Jim Gauger
Special to the CS&T

As the Hispanic population in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia grows, the duties of the Office of the Vicar for Hispanic Catholics expand.

There are 198,806 Hispanic Catholics in the Archdiocese. Masses in Spanish are celebrated in 39 parishes.

Edilma Franco sees these numbers as a welcome challenge. Franco is the new director of the Office for Hispanic Catholics. She succeeds Anna Vega, who held the position for the last 17 years and was involved in the Hispanic Apostolate for 43 years. {{more}}

“I’m excited,” Franco said. “I want to work with the Hispanic community. It is my community. I’ve always tried to help people; this is another opportunity in my life to help.”

Franco has been involved with the Hispanic community for the last 10 years, since she came to the United States from Colombia. She earned a bachelor’s degree in system engineering from the University Autónoma de Colombia (1995) and a master’s degree in evaluation of projects (business) from the University Nuestra Señora del Rosario (1998). Both universities are in Bogota, Colombia.

For two-and-a-half years Franco worked at the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center in Kensington, where she was in charge of the financial education program, which provided consultation and training services to over 300 people during her tenure. The community center is seen as an anchor in the Kensington neighborhood, serving children and youth with after-school enrichment.

“As a direct result of our program, the participants gained new working skills, such as English proficiency, computer literacy and use of Microsoft Office products, and they gained new relationships and a more supportive community environment,” Franco explained.

Her next step was the temporary position as an assistant to Sister Ruth Bolarte, I.H.M., at the Catholic Institute for Evangelization.

“During the four months I worked with Sister Ruth, we were able to open a new three-year-long ministerial course for 20 new participants, and we were also able to support the continuation of a second group with 15 participants undergoing their second year of study and spiritual preparation,” Franco said.

When the position at the Office for Hispanic Catholics opened up, Msgr. Hugh J. Shields, vicar for Hispanic Catholics, knew who he wanted.

“Edilma is still studying Church ministry,” Msgr. Shields said. “She wants to be better prepared in the concepts of faith and the teachings of the Church.”

In the past 10 years, Msgr. Shields says the Hispanic population from South and Central America and Mexico has grown substantially in the Archdiocese. It is the Church’s duty to provide programs that will strengthen the faith of immigrants who are very young.

“The median age is 25,” Msgr. Shields said. “Many are having children. The community is continuing to grow so more services are needed.”

Msgr. Shields feels Franco’s background prepares her to tackle the challenges head on. “She, as well as myself, will be visiting parishes to look at their needs,” he said. “Many of the parishes have changed dramatically with new immigrants. The business component of Edilma’s education will help her to better prioritize and apportion our resources in a fruitful way. We can tap into her blend of theological and business experiences for our planning.”

Franco takes a positive, enthusiastic approach to a job that seems perfectly scripted for someone with her talents.

“I can say I have high expectations, both from my new environment but also from myself, and to say the least, I am very excited about the possibilities,” she said via e-mail. “My passion lies in helping people in local communities come together to renew their spiritual commitment so that with a new sense of empowerment they can play a leadership role in their families and in their communities.

“My professional studies in high-risk business development give me the planning and organizational skills that inform my practice in the non-profit field today. As you know, working with local communities requires not only good planning and strategy, but also the relational skills – and the sense of intentionality – so critical for engaging people to learn and act on their own behalf. I understand this well and I am looking forward to the new challenges and opportunities that this position entails.

“Although I am still learning about what resources are available to support this important work, I have no doubt we will succeed.”

Msgr. Shields seconds those words.

“Edilma is a hard worker who is deepening her understanding of Church teachings,” he said. “She is innovative; she brings a fresh outlook from a business perspective. She is following in the footsteps of Anna Vega, and she will put her stamp – in the best sense of the word – on her work.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.