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Latinos may be 'future' of U.S. Catholic Church

  • Story Highlights
  • German immigrants founded St. Cecilia's in St. Louis; it's now 85 percent Latino
  • Pew: One-third of U.S. Catholics are Latinos due to immigration, higher fertility rates
  • Language barriers, separate Masses create tensions at some churches
  • Hispanics are the present, future of U.S. Catholic Church, says Pedro Moreno Garcia
By Emily Probst
CNN
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ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- "I'll take two chili, uh..." a hungry customer stammers at the front of a two-hour-long line. "Chile rellenos," the money-handler trills back in perfect Spanish. This is not a trendy Tex-Mex restaurant; and it's more than 1,000 miles from the Mexican border.

Holy Trinity Church

St. Cecilia's nearly closed. After it was designated the parish home for Latinos, the congregation quadrupled.

The stuffed pepper causing the stutter is the hottest menu item at St. Cecilia's Lenten fish fry in St. Louis, Missouri. Chile rellenos, a traditional Mexican dish, have replaced fish as the main draw for Catholics giving up meat on Fridays. This century-old parish founded by German immigrants has turned 85 percent Hispanic.

"It's the browning of the Catholic Church in the United States," says Pedro Moreno Garcia, who until last month led the Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Moreno Garcia points to St. Cecilia's Spanish-dominant Mass schedule as a sign of the times.

"Hispanics are the present and Hispanics are the future of the Catholic Church in the United States," says Moreno Garcia.

One-third of all Catholics in the United States are now Latinos thanks to immigration and higher fertility rates, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. While St. Cecilia's parish has relished the growth, elsewhere, the Latino population boom has rocked the pews.

"Instead of screaming out, 'The British are coming!' " Moreno Garcia says some people are screaming, " 'The Hispanics are coming! The Hispanics are coming! Run, run.' "

A self-described Nuyorican or Puerto Rican from New York, Moreno Garcia says even he gets mislabeled. Video Chile rellenos are served up at St. Cecilia's »

"They still confuse every Hispanic as being from Mexico, and that everyone is here illegally," says Moreno Garcia.

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After more than 15 years working for the Catholic Church in majority-Hispanic areas of Texas, Moreno Garcia spent the last year tackling the challenges of a community where Latinos, although growing, are still the minority.

He recalls a few heated phone calls after the archdiocese newspaper, the St. Louis Review, added a page in Spanish. He fights prejudice with thought-provoking questions.

"When you go to heaven, and you're in front of St. Peter, what would you want to have in your hand, your baptismal certificate or your passport?" Moreno Garcia asks.

One archdiocese parish that is struggling with the Latino influx is Holy Trinity in St. Ann, Missouri, a suburban community with an affordable housing stock that has prompted a population shift in the last decade. Video Pedro Moreno Garcia is working to bridge language barriers, divisions »

Separate Sunday morning Masses in English and in Spanish at Holy Trinity are creating division among the devout.

"We're two separate parishes operating under one roof," says Parish Council President Gina Shocklee.

"I refer to it as Holy Trinity Catholic Church, and then there's Holy Trinity Hispanic Church," says council member Jody Tedeschi, who worries the separate Masses promote segregation.

Holy Trinity's parish council has spent the past year looking for ways to bridge the divide with limited success.

Part of that complicated picture is the family of Mexican-born Angelica Garcia, the new face of Holy Trinity. She has lived in the United States for 18 years; Holy Trinity has been her parish for the last four.

"When I come to Mass at noon, the Anglos leave, and [Latinos] go in and we don't even say 'hi' to each other, not even 'hi,'" says Garcia. "Sometimes I think there is a wall, but that wall exists only because we don't have enough faith."

She takes her 7-year-old son, Jose Miguel, to summer classes to improve his English.

"I would really like if we could all be together, because we all worship the same God. We are all God's children," Garcia says, "but the problem is the language."

A majority of Latino churchgoers in the United States attend Mass with mostly Latinos in the pew and Spanish-speaking clergy at the pulpit, according to a 2006 Pew Forum survey. Today, 15 percent of priests ordained in the United States are Latinos, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"It's like a wedding, and you have two families coming together," says Moreno Garcia, "And they're two distinct and different families. And we're not asking any family to cease being who they are. But we are saying, 'Let's learn to be a bigger family.' "

St. Cecilia's has learned to be a bigger family. The parish pastor, the Rev. William Vatterott, is a cheery 33-year-old St. Louis native who jokes his young parish will one day have a strong soccer team. Vatterott studied Spanish in Mexico and now officiates bilingual baptisms -- as many as 10 at a time -- all of them Latinos.

The Latino-packed pews and the chile relleno craze belie St. Cecilia's once uncertain future. In late 2004, church leaders considered closing its doors as the congregation dwindled and debt mounted.

Instead, the archbishop designated St. Cecilia's the parish home for area Latinos, and the congregation quadrupled.

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"It was a God-send," says long-time parishioner Gloria Dowling of the Latino newcomers. "It's generating a lot of energy, which is what we needed because the old people passed away, went in the nursing home, and the young ones moved away, so that left a skeleton crew here."

"Heaven on Earth is all kinds of people," Dowling says, "We don't have to wait 'til we get up there. It's all right here."

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