Spirit of diversity celebrated at Mass

Hispanics: A Carroll Catholic parish's lively observance of the Virgin of Guadalupe's feast day is a sign of its growing ministry.

December 14, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Enclosed in a large glass case, a 4-foot-high statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe stood next to the marble altar in St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster. As a mariachi band played, devotees of the patron saint of the Americas placed red, pink and white roses before her statue while kneeling and offering prayers and kisses.

Nearly 250 people attended Friday's bilingual Mass to celebrate the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a major observance for Catholics throughout Latin America, particularly in Mexico, of which she is the patron saint.

According to church legend, on Dec. 12, 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe - the mother of Jesus - appeared to Mexican peasant Juan Diego on a hill as a dark-skinned woman silhouetted in sunlight and standing on a crescent moon.

"There are many titles for Our Lady. ... [One is] Our Lady of Guadalupe," said the Rev. Brian Nolan in his homily. "The title speaks about one woman. ... What is powerful about Our Lady of Guadalupe is that she's the same woman in the Gospels."

In its second year, the Virgin of Guadalupe Mass at St. John is an outgrowth of the weekly Spanish-speaking Mass that began about three years ago. Several parishioners initiated efforts to start the ministry after they saw a need in the county's growing Hispanic population, church officials say.

"I recognized that the Latino population was growing in the area," said parishioner Denise Diegel, 49, of Westminster, a high school French teacher who speaks Spanish. "[Many] are Roman Catholics, so I thought we should do something in our parish."

Of the 155 parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 16 offer Masses in Spanish, reflecting the growth in the area's Hispanic population, said Maria Johnson, director of the diocese's Hispanic ministry.

"There is a need to start Spanish-speaking ministries," she said.

Across Maryland, the Hispanic population grew 12.5 percent during the 1990s, to 256,510 in 2000, according to U.S. Census figures. Baltimore's Hispanic population increased 45 percent in that period to 11,061; Baltimore County's 80 percent to 13,774.

In Carroll County, the Hispanic population represents 1 percent of its 150,897 residents. St. John officials say the number is growing, evidenced by the steady increase in its Spanish-speaking Mass' attendance.

At first, the Mass was held infrequently with a dozen or so parishioners. Now the ministry is a weekly fixture at 3:15 p.m. Sundays, drawing an average of 80 people each week, and sometimes more than 100.

Monsignor Arthur F. Valenzano, pastor of St. John since 1993, said the Hispanic ministry brings an added depth to the larger church community.

"One of the things is it helps us deepen our awareness that the church is bigger than one community," Valenzano said. "It also helps us to understand the multicultural dimension of the world and the church."

The archdiocese's Hispanic ministry office found two Spanish-speaking priests to say Mass at St. John.

One is the Rev. Tadeo Mich, who spent 10 years as a missionary in Colombia. Mich, who teaches anthropology at the Catholic University of America, commutes three Sundays a month to Westminster from his home in Herndon, Va.

Mich has worked for numerous Hispanic ministries and said he has found St. John to be a welcoming place for Hispanic worshipers - which he says is not always the case at all parishes. "There is an openness here," he said.

Sandra Mondragon, 29, of Westminster, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1996, recalls being surprised when she attended her first Spanish-speaking Mass at St. John last September because she "only saw the priest and seven people."

"My wish at that time was to see the church with too many people," said Mondragon, who quickly became an active congregant, joining the choir with her husband and sister.

Mondragon organized Friday's Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass to encourage participation from more Hispanic immigrants as well as others.

"I want the American people to see why it's important for us to celebrate the day," Mondragon said. "We want the American people to know the Virgin of Guadalupe."

Friday's Mass was festive and lively, with the mariachi band and another group playing songs dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Upbeat music also was the backdrop during prayers and communion.

Longtime St. John parishioner Eleanor Jamison, 63, of Westminster, said she came to Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass after reading about it in the church bulletin. "It was beautifully done," she said. "I enjoyed the difference in culture."

Even after Friday's Mass ended, four dozen people circled the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe while listening to the mariachi band. Some took pictures of relatives and friends standing next to the encased statue, while others walked around the sanctuary with pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

"She means my whole soul and my heart," Martina Saldana, 39, of Taneytown, said after Friday's Mass. "I grew up in Mexico. We believed in her in Mexico, and we came here; she keeps us going day by day."

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