Catholic Church reaches ethnically diverse community with multilingual Masses

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Observer Contributor
Feb. 27, 2008

Sacred Heart Way is a crowded road on Sunday morning. People fill the side street, straddling the 16th Street dividing line between Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant. The crowd spilled off the steps of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and followed the smell of incense inside. What was noticeable was not the number of people reciting the opening prayer, but the language they were speaking.

Sacred Heart is one of 30 parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington offering Spanish-language Mass. The Catholic Church is adapting to serve the needs of immigrants, holding Mass in more than 20 languages each week in the city, from Vietnamese to Haitian Creole. The churches are also offering service programs to meet their congregations’ needs.

Observer photo by CASEY LABRACK
The Shrine of the Sacred Heart holds Mass in Spanish as part of an initiative to meet the needs of recent immigrants.

“The Catholic Church is one of the three largest service providers to immigrants in the country,” said Susan Gibbs, communications director for the archdiocese. “Part of that is because the church is familiar — it’s a reference point in an unfamiliar community. They feel that they know someone.”

Rev. Stephen Carter has been at Sacred Heart since 1995, and said he has been serving the immigrant community his entire life. He helped start the Spanish Catholic Center, a resource office for immigrants seeking medical, educational and occupational assistance.

“It’s an outreach on the part of the church to respond to the needs of the community,” Carter said. “The immediate needs that our people have, which they can’t afford.”

Gibbs said that in Mount Pleasant the archdiocese offers affordable housing, a bilingual school, a dental clinic, a pediatric clinic, adult English classes and a union training program for construction workers.

“There are service needs and pastoral needs,” Gibbs said. “Pastoral is how we reach out to the community, so people feel welcome and involved — through Spanish-language services. The second part is working as a service provider.”

A few blocks up 16th Street, Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin has also adapted her ministry to grow with the community. She began an Episcopal Latino ministry at her church, St. Stephen and the Incarnation, in 2006. Though her congregation is small, averaging about 40 during Sunday evening service, she expects growth in the coming years.

“Catholicism is a very ingrained tradition, and there’s a big taboo of people crossing over to other traditions,” Goodwin said. “Of course, we’re not all that different. It’s more superficial than anything deeply rooted in our beliefs.”

At her church, the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants has created challenges in how to connect the new community with the old. Goodwin said that building bridges provides an opportunity for increased awareness of issues facing immigrants, with new members coming from 10 different countries.

“We’re more diverse than the English-speaking congregation,” she said. “The only thing that unites us is our language. We come from so many different cultures, and trying to put it all together is interesting.”

Gibbs said the increase in programs and services specifically targeting immigrants reflects the unity of the Catholic Church in representing its diverse adherents.

“While there are different cultural needs, we’re still one church,” Gibbs said.

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