Hispanic priest bridges gap ON THE GO Priest is driven to help Hispanics all over area solve their problems.

April 03, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

There are days when the Rev. Miguel Vilar's phone rings right off the console.

One recent weekday morning, someone called to ask the Episcopal priest to visit a Hispanic prisoner in the City Jail. Another caller wanted housing leads for immigrants from Central and South America.

And then Vilar's mechanic phoned. Bad news. The priest's 1989 Subaru needed a transmission overhaul. The bill would be about $800.

"Oh well," Vilar said, sighing as he hung up. "That's what happens when you put 70,000 miles on a car in two years."

The diminutive, bearded priest has accumulated all that mileage ministering to Maryland's booming Hispanic population. Since coming to Baltimore from his native Puerto Rico four years ago, Vilar has been driven to help Latin American immigrants make as smooth a transition to life in North America as possible.

Is it any wonder his Subaru blew its transmission? The miracle is that the 50-year-old priest himself hasn't run out of gas.

"I hang in," Vilar says with a shrug.

He hangs in all right, but with a killer schedule. Consider some of the ways the priest's days are filled:

He works as an advocate for Hispanic inmates at the jail. He helps immigrants in the state file forms allowing them to live and work here. He counsels Hispanic youth through the Baltimore Department of Social Services. He is one of 16 members of the Mayor's Committee on Hispanic Affairs. He belongs to a small ecumenical group of local ministers who provide various kinds of assistance to Hispanics.

His primary role, however, is that of vicar, or missioner, of La Mision Episcopal Hispana, a Hispanic Episcopal congregation of about 100 people who worship at Holy Evangelists Episcopal Church in Canton. His group shares the 130-year-old brick building with a similarly sized English-speaking congregation, longtime residents of the blue-collar, Formstone-happy neighborhood overlooking the northwest branch of the Patapsco River.

Vilar has a cubicle-sized office in the Holy Evangelists basement. His only furnishings are three chairs, a desk, a gray file cabinet and a bookcase. Religious posters in English and Spanish are tacked to the walls. One poster quotes a Biblical passage, in Spanish, from the Gospel according to "Juan."

Four years ago, while working as an Episcopal missioner in Puerto Rico, Vilar was about to move to Baltimore with his wife, Barbara, and their three children. They chose Baltimore because Barbara is a Maryland native.

Vilar planned to study religion and philosophy here, but before leaving Puerto Rico, he heard about a Hispanic congregation at Holy Evangelists that needed a pastoral leader after the death of the Rev. Ricardo Polamares, a Cuban.

Vilar liked the idea of working with Polamares' congregation, and with the large numbers of Hispanics moving into the state, mostly into East Baltimore. As eager as Vilar was to work with Hispanics, the immigrants from south of the U.S. border were as intent on finding a church and a padre they could feel comfortable with.

"In Latin America, the church is the place to go for help," Vilar explains. "The Latin American countries were all Christian missionary countries, so people grew up with the church. They always turned to it for assistance. In the small towns, the church is usually the biggest building, the biggest institution."

Latin Americans also go to the church as a last resort, he adds.

"People in Latin America don't trust the government," says Vilar. "So they don't trust the U.S. government when they move here. When I first meet them, they don't tell me their real names. It takes them some time to trust even a priest."

But, as the constantly ringing phone in his office attests, the immigrants have come to trust Vilar and rely on him as a valuable resource. At a recent meeting of the mayoral committee, the members spoke of using the handful of local Hispanic churches as a bridge between city government and needy immigrants. Vilar has been just such a bridge since 1987.

"Father Vilar is a strong presence in the Hispanic community," says the Rev. Anne Reed, the coordinator of congregational services for Maryland's Episcopal Diocese. "He's very clear about what needs to be done on issues like illiteracy, AIDS education and illegal alien issues."

"I'm starting to see more religious leadership in the Hispanic community, and Father Vilar is a special, unique example," says Jose Ruiz, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs and the chairman of the East Baltimore Latino Organization.

"There are a few Pentecostal churches in Baltimore with dynamic leaders, but they keep more to themselves," Ruiz says. "The thing about Vilar is that he goes outside his own church. If you need help, you can go to him, though he may find you first. He goes everywhere."

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