Luisa Orellana was a streak of burgundy Sunday, whipping between a children’s choir and a mariachi band, directing the music, strumming a guitar and doing a little praying herself.
Orellana was in charge of the music at the Spanish-language Catholic Mass to celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe - a celebration as big as Christmas for Latin-American Catholics.
The children of Spokane’s small Latin-American Catholic congregation had worked hard for three weeks, learning dozens of songs for the festive worship service. On Sunday, they broke in their new red choir robes and surprised even their parents with an exuberant performance.
High school students re-enacted the miracle of 1531, in which the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant, resulting in the mass conversion of most of Latin America to Catholicism.
After the two-hour service, parents and other worshipers congratulated Orellana for the children’s performance.
“The Holy Spirit was with us,” she sighed. “Everyone sounded so wonderful.”
For the congregation, the celebration was a cultural remembrance and perhaps a congregational rebirth.
Several months ago, the priest assigned to the Spanish-language congregation was transferred and no one was available to take his place.
“Any time we don’t have a priest, that is a loss,” said Deacon Gonzalo Martinez. “There is a lot of respect for the priest. For Latin-Americans, that is particularly so.”
The congregation had to look within itself for leadership, Martinez said. The soul-searching is yet to be completed.
Such a crisis is common for Hispanic Catholic churches throughout the United States. Their population is exploding while Spanish-speaking priests are almost impossible to find.
Church demographers predict that, within 20 years, more than 50 percent of the Catholic Church in America will be Spanish speaking. While the Catholic Church has always been a home for immigrants, the influx of immigrants from Latin American countries will force the church to adjust even more than for their European predecessors, said the Rev. Mike Terrell, S.J.
Terrell and the Rev. Mike Cook, S.J. celebrate Mass for Spokane’s Hispanics at 12:30 p.m., every Sunday at St. Joseph’s Church, 1503 W. Dean.
While the number of worshipers is growing, few priests have immigrated and even fewer are coming out of the newly formed communities. As a result, churches in large Hispanic parishes are packed for Spanish-language Masses. And smaller communities, like the one in the Spokane, must make do without a full-time priest.
At the same time, many Spanish-speaking Americans are leaving behind their Catholic roots. A recent report by Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley points out that roughly 14 percent of Hispanic Catholics have left the faith in the last quarter-century.
In the early 1970s, almost 80 percent of Latin-Americans said they were Catholic. By 1995 that number had dropped to 67 percent. About half of the defections have been to evangelical or Pentecostal churches. The other half now belong to moderate or liberal Protestant denominations. Only a small percentage have left religion completely behind.
While Greeley describes the loss as catastrophic, Terrell calls it unavoidable.
“There was such a flood of immigrants, it was perhaps beyond our ability” as a church, he said. “It’s sad, but it’s true - which is not to say we don’t keep working at it.”
Terrell points out that in Latin America, many people are culturally Catholic, but don’t actually attend church that often. For some, when they are offered different choices about religion, they take them.
Hispanic Protestants tend to be better-educated, wealthier and are more likely to be married compared to their Catholic counterparts, according to Greeley’s research. They also pray more frequently and are more likely to oppose abortion, premarital and extra-marital sex and homosexuality.
“They seem to in some ways be better Catholics than Hispanic Catholics,” Greeley wrote in the Sept. 27 issue of America Magazine, a Jesuit publication.
Although there is no data collected locally, Martinez said his personal experience rings true with Greeley’s numbers.
Some Protestant churches are very helpful in getting immigrant families settled. Some Latin-Americans find married clergy more appealing than celibate priests.
“I don’t know if the lack of a bilingual, bicultural minister is the reason,” Martinez said. “But if we had more of them, it would help.”
For all the strain on the community, there has been a healthy response in Spokane.
Margarita Alvarado moved here with her husband four years ago from Los Angeles. There, they could find Spanish-language Mass in dozens of churches all over the city. Here they had to call the diocese to find out if one even existed.
At first, the smaller congregation was an adjustment.
“In L.A., you would go to church, listen to Mass and leave,” Alvarado said. “Here, it feels like one big family.”
Indeed, on Sunday, when it came time to exchange the sign of peace, it looked more like a seventh-inning stretch at a baseball game than a holy gathering.
For at least 10 minutes, people swarmed in and out of pews, shaking hands, hugging and chatting. After making one leisurely round through the church, Terrell waited patiently at the altar for the din to subside.
While members have always been willing to help out with non-priestly duties, they are reading the Scriptures and helping with communion more and more - something unheard of in most Latin-American countries.
“Those are seen as priestly duties, so there is some reservation to doing them,” Terrell said. “But even that is changing. It will have to if the congregation wants to function.”
Soon, members will begin formal training so they can perform marriage counseling, teach Catholic education classes and participate more in the service.
Orellana sees the changes as healthy for the community. Since she began as the music coordinator four years ago, more and more families with children have been joining.
They all want a choir and classes for their youngsters. Now, many of them are working hard to make that happen.
Only as it has become more of a chore, do the families realize the value of the community as a crucial part of their identity, she said.
“A big thing that is important to us as Christians and as Catholics is to maintain our tradition,” she said. “It feels better, it actually tastes better, to have Mass in your own language,” she said as she rushed out of the church to another commitment.
“This is actually my favorite part of my life.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo