A changing Catholicism

An influx of Hispanic worshipers transforms a traditionally Italian church, neighborhood

The Pope In America

April 15, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun reporter

The future rolled into Our Lady of Pompei Church a few weeks ago. Her name was Yoselin Garcia, and she sat quietly in her stroller, a bit player in the vast demographic shift reshaping the Roman Catholic Church in America.

The Garcias - mom, dad and three little girls - had stopped in at the Highlandtown church to drop off a baptism form for the youngest, 1-year-old Yoselin. The Rev. Luigi Cremis, wearing a smile so wide he squinted, cooed at the dark-haired girl and chatted with her sisters, Yasmin, 2, and Estefania, 6.

As the Garcias ventured back into the bright East Baltimore sunshine, Father Luis, as everyone calls him, turned to the young patriarch, Maximo, who like his wife was born in Mexico.

"Gracias," said the priest.

For decades, Our Lady of Pompei was a solidly Italian-American center of community life. But during the past five years, the church has undergone drastic change because of new arrivals like the Garcias: Half its parishioners are now Hispanic.

Nationally, almost one-third of Catholics are Hispanic, including nearly half of those younger than 40. And while Baltimore lags behind the country - just four out of 100 Mass attendees in the archdiocese are Hispanic - the percentage has risen fourfold since 2000.

The influx of large-family Hispanic immigrants, most of them Catholic, is transforming the American church, as Pope Benedict XVI will see this week on his first papal visit to the United States. Parishes once proudly Irish, Polish, Italian or just plain American now have youthful Hispanic majorities, with their own worship styles and values.

The shift has been a boon to the church nationwide, experts say, replenishing pews that have emptied of many native-born Catholics - a balancing out that has allowed the Catholic Church to hover at about 25 percent of the overall U.S. population.

But as Our Lady of Pompei illustrates, change can beget tension: Old-timers watch "their" church metamorphose with some regret; and separate Spanish-language Masses deepen the sense of division. Church members say it's as if two parishes are merely sharing a stained-glass sanctuary.

A transformation

Moments after the Garcias left, Father Luis strode out the door. He had pastoral rounds that could serve as bookends for the brick church's eight decades at Conkling and Claremont streets, east of Patterson Park. After praying in Italian with a 94-year- old widow, he would pray in Spanish with a Mexican woman brought low by her 6-year-old son's leukemia.

The sun's glare reflected off the Formstone rowhouses on Claremont as the lanky, gray-haired 48-year-old priest loped along in leather sandals. His prized crucifix, a gift from a nun 11 years ago, bounced gently against his sweater.

For much of the last century, this area was a magnet for Italian immigrants and their descendants. Less well-known than Little Italy, this swath of working-class Highlandtown, north of Eastern Avenue and over to Greektown, was at least as worthy of the label, long-time residents insist.

Italian merchants abounded: Cicone Realty, Cerra Bros., Joe Tamburello. They're gone now, as are lots of the Italian-Americans, who moved to the suburbs or died. Now the signs say Cinco de Mayo grocery and "preparacion de taxes." Some stalwarts remain, including Zannino Funeral Home and DiPasquale's deli and grocery.

No institution has played a more pivotal role in people's lives than Our Lady of Pompei, completed in 1924 by Italian masons.

As Father Luis turned onto Eaton Street, he shouted "Hola!" to a Colombian woman he knew. A native Italian, Father Luis spent years as a missionary in Latin America before coming to Our Lady of Pompei five years ago to oversee Hispanic outreach.

He arrived at the Celenza home on Fagley Street, where Elvira Celenza, 94, was waiting inside. An immigrant to America in 1949, she sat in an easy chair, wearing a light blue robe, tinted glasses and hoop earrings. With her was her 68-year-old son, Anselmo, who attends Mass weekly, but poor health keeps her homebound. So Father Luis sometimes brings the ministry to her.

The conversation turned to the rising Hispanic population, which stretches from Fells Point along Eastern Avenue over to Dundalk. They hail largely from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras.

Anselmo Celenza lamented that he does not know his neighbors anymore. "Nobody comes out; nobody talks to us."

"It was not like that in 1960," the priest suggested, gently. "It was different, right? All Italians here."

"Oh my God, one time we had a party. I think it was Easter." Celenza gasped at his own memory. "Ooh, this block was all Italian."

"Mama mia!" exclaimed Father Luis.

Some older parishioners freely admit their unease over the changes. Take Nicholas Dulisse. He began attending Mass when he was 6. That was 70 years ago. He still goes every Sunday to the earliest of three English Masses, which together draw fewer than the 300-strong turnout at the 6 p.m. Spanish Mass.

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