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Keeping the faithful
In Boston, as elsewhere in the United States, Hispanic immigrants arrive Catholic; they don’t necessarily remain so
The first Mass specifically for Spanish-speaking parishioners of the Boston Archdiocese was held on Easter Sunday 1957, in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, at Union Park and Washington streets. Hispanics, mainly from Puerto Rico, had begun arriving in New England during the 1940s, working in agriculture and industry. In Boston, they settled primarily in the South End. Before long, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross was largely a parish of Spanish speakers.
By the late 1980s, it was clear that the archdiocesan demographics were changing, particularly in urban areas. The Hispanic population of Boston increased by 64 percent between 1980 and 1990 to some 60,000; meanwhile, the number of Bostonians who reported Irish ancestry decreased to 129,000, only 22 percent of the city’s total population. Hispanics are now predicted to be the single largest group of Catholics in Boston within 20 years.
The archdiocese began reaching out to its Hispanic population early on. In 1958, a year after the city’s first Spanish Mass, Cardinal Richard Cushing formed the Society of St. James Apostle, which sent (and still sends) clergy to serve in priest-poor Latin America. Upon returning, these priests, newly fluent in Spanish, began ministering to Boston’s Hispanics. Also around this time the Spanish Center of Boston was founded in the South End. A community effort with clergy involvement, it was later renamed the Cardinal Cushing Center for the Spanish Speaking.
The Hispanic community in Boston today consists of more than a dozen nationalities. A small number of Cubans followed the Puerto Ricans during the 1950s and 1960s. Dominicans soon joined them during the 1960s. The 1970s and 1980s saw an influx of immigrants from Central America, fleeing civil war, poverty, and unemployment. Beginning in the 1990s Colombians, Ecuadorians, Venezuelans, and Peruvians added to the complexity of the mosaic.
The Church’s attention to Hispanic Catholics in Boston grew throughout the 1980s. In 1988, with a reported 150,000 Spanish-speaking Catholics in the archdiocese, Roberto Octavio Gonzalez, OFM, was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Boston. Then 38 and the youngest bishop in the country, Gonzalez had grown up in Puerto Rico and served an 11-year ministry in the Bronx. He was given special responsibility for the spiritual needs of Boston’s Spanish-speaking Catholics. On the day he became bishop, he greeted his congregation in Spanish, which he said in English was “God’s language.” Gonzalez served in Boston for seven years, then, in 1995, was chosen by John Paul II to be the bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas. When he left Boston, there were 33 parishes in the archdiocese with growing Hispanic populations, many in the city but others in towns north and west. Hispanic parishes had been founded in Lowell (a town of 105,000), for instance, and Lawrence (population 72,000). At the same time, Gonzalez reported there were five Hispanic priests, 12 Hispanic deacons, and 12 Hispanic nuns. Gonzalez recommended that a new auxiliary bishop be named to care for the archdiocese’s Hispanics. A year later Pope John Paul II appointed as bishop Emilio S. Allué, SDB, a native of Spain, and the assignment became his.
The increased attention given to Hispanic Catholics during the 1980s and beyond was not only a reflection of their growing numbers but also a recognition by the Church that some of them were leaving the Church. At a meeting in Rome called by Pope John Paul II in 1991, American cardinals discussed data developed by Fr. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago: According to Greeley, 60,000 Hispanic Catholics were leaving the Church for Protestant evangelical groups each year. In 2000, the Boston archdiocese estimated there were almost 500,000 Hispanics living within its boundaries. Many of them, however, had either stopped attending church regularly or had left the Church altogether.
The archdiocese has long relied on lay leaders to help serve the pastoral needs of the Hispanic community. In 2001, it opened the Instituto de Formación de Laicos, which offers a two-year program for laypeople who wish to work among Hispanics. (Boston College has a similar program through its Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.)
Church leaders have worried about being hobbled by the scarcity of Spanish-speaking clergy. A study conducted by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000 found that the number of Hispanic seminarians was drastically declining. While there was one priest for every 1,200 Catholics in the United States, there was only one Spanish-speaking priest for every 10,000 Latinos. The archdiocese has recruited priests from Central and South America to fill the need. And many non-Spanish-speaking priests have learned the language, which has been much appreciated by members of the Hispanic community. A shortage remains, however. As of June 2003, there were only 14 Latinos studying in all of New England’s seminaries.
In 2000, the Church in Boston decided to launch La Vida Católica, a Spanish-language newspaper, in the hopes of stanching the flow of Hispanics out of the Church. The archdiocese was one of the last major dioceses to do so. Antonio M. Enrique, then assistant editor at the paper and executive director of La Vida, an organization aimed at drawing together Hispanics and the Church, told the Boston Globe, “We want to help those already attending church in their development, and we want to reach out to the biggest part of the community, which is not attending church even though sociologically they are Catholics.” The monthly newspaper is distributed free to “every person at Spanish Mass” in the archdiocese, according to its website. This year, La Vida Católica goes out to 37 parishes.
The national bishops’ report of 2000 had noted that many Hispanic Catholics felt marginalized by the Church and that oftentimes pastors “sought to eliminate” Hispanics’ popular devotions, notably those organized around a patron saint or coming-of-age ceremony. (According to the bishops, some pastors considered practices like the quinceañera, which combines religious ceremony and social celebration on a girl’s 15th birthday, “too time-consuming.”)
Simply saying Mass in Spanish is not enough to stem the tide of Hispanics leaving the Church. Indeed, what began as a trickle seems to have accelerated in the last 15 years. While a majority of immigrants from Central and South America arrive as Catholics, the share of Hispanics who are Catholic declines from 72 percent in the first generation to 61 percent and then 52 percent in subsequent generations, according to studies conducted by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame. Latinos seem to be drawn to evangelical churches where emphasis has been placed on a sense of community and active involvement, and, perhaps equally significant, on social services for immigrants. As Edwin I. Hernandez, a Notre Dame sociologist, told the Boston Globe in 2005, evangelical churches succeed by “nuzzling themselves” into the lives of their constituents.
The increased immigration from Latin America has continued unabated since 2000, according to Census Bureau figures released in 2006. In fact, while many native-born residents are leaving Massachusetts, the influx of Hispanic immigrants has helped keep the state’s population level at 6.4 million. Some 12.2 percent of the state’s inhabitants were foreign-born in 2000; by 2005, that figure had risen to 14.4 percent.
The Boston Archdiocese has always been an immigrant church. First the Irish and French Catholics arrived and vied for influence. Later it was the Germans, the French from Quebec, and Italian Catholics (among others). A pattern of accommodation, usually in the form of separate Masses and then distinct parishes, was replicated numerous times, always amid controversy. Newcomers bring their vibrancy, hope, and faith with them. As Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap, stated in December 2003 to priests assembled at Boston College, “special regard must be given to the new immigrants.” It will be up to everybody—clergy and laity, native-born and recent arrivals—to make sure their faith can be maintained.
William C. Leonard is an associate professor of history at Emmanuel College. His essay is drawn from the 2009 book Two Centuries of Faith: The Influence of Catholicism on Boston, 1808–2008, edited by University Historian Thomas H. O’Connor ’49, H’93, and published by the Church in the 21st Century Center. The book, which is Boston College’s contribution to the marking of the 200th anniversary of the archdiocese, may be ordered at a discount from the BC Bookstore via www.bc.edu/bcm.