Why Dioceses Need to Support Struggling Latino Churches

“The Miracle on Tepeyac” interlaces the story of a small-town Hispanic church in decline with scenes from La Virgen de Guadalupe’s encounter with Juan Diego. Set in a fictional Latino parish in an unnamed tourist town in Colorado, the play depicts a once thriving church buckling under the weight of neglect, mistreatment and abandonment. Membership has declined. Funding has disappeared. The crumbling church building exists in a constant state of unfinished renovation.

“I am sure you were beautiful at one time. Now you are run down. You must have been majestic, for a small town to build such a large church. And look at us now, an entire wing is boarded and in disrepair, so we crowd into what we jokingly call ‘the new church.’”

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In this scene from the play, a Mexican-American priest, Padre Tomás, laments the deterioration of his church. And even as he longs to desert this dilapidated, dying church for a desk job at the archdiocese, his faith in the parish is revivified by a cadre of its forgotten members: the underappreciated parish housekeeper, the undereducated parish janitor, the undocumented refugee hiding in the unfinished part of the church and the young man dying from an unnamed disease (likely AIDS).

It has often been a painful past, one in which the very existence of Latino church communities has often come under threat.

As the plot of “The Miracle on Tepeyac” unfolds, La Virgen de Guadalupe lifts up the lowly and marginalized members of the church, inviting them to recognize their own God-given dignity. In recognizing that, each character learns to defend the dignity of others and to speak truth to power. Just as Guadalupe sends Juan Diego to petition Bishop Zumárraga to build her church, the parishioners plead with Padre Tomás to love and defend his parish.

From the “new church” arises a renewed church, one committed to honoring and protecting the dignity of each of its members. In the play’s culminating scene, Padre Tomás renews his commitment to caring for his parishioners over against the political and ecclesial powers that stand against their survival and flourishing.

 

Behind the Numbers

Performed at Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center—a Chicano community theater located on the Westside of Denver, Colo.—“The Miracle on Tepeyac” meditates on the real-life struggles of Latino Catholics who once lived in the Auraria neighborhood of Denver before being forced to move when the area was designated as the site for the Auraria Higher Education Center in the 1970s. The neighborhood was home to St. Cajetan’s, a thriving Latino parish that was the heart of the neighborhood. It was closed when the community relocated.

While parishioners organized to save their neighborhood, archdiocesan leadership encouraged Catholics to vote in support of the education center. The residents were forced to leave their beloved neighborhood. Their parish was shuttered. St. Cajetan’s former parish building now serves as a communal event center for the universities located on the Auraria Campus.

Stories of parishes like St. Cajetan’s can be obscured by the narrative of Latino demographic and cultural prosperity in the U.S. Catholic Church. Indeed, Latino Catholics are increasing in both numbers and visibility in the United States. While Latino Catholics have always been a vital presence in the American church, burgeoning populations of migrants and young people have helped bolster their numbers. And even as growing numbers of Latinos have shifted the geographic center of Catholicism from the Northeast to the Southwest, signs of Latino Catholicism are becoming ubiquitous in U.S. Catholicism, promising to transform every corner of the church’s life.

But promising demographic data can easily be interpreted in a way that overlooks the textured history of Latino Catholics in the United States. This history is not a romantic account of gradual awareness, acceptance and celebration by the larger U.S. Catholic Church. It has often been a painful past, one in which the very existence of Latino church communities has often come under threat. As “The Miracle at Tepyác” discloses, Latino Catholics and their institutions have often been treated as pastoral afterthoughts by the broader church, and have even been the subject of neglect and abandonment.

Declining numbers of vocations to the priesthood, contracting parish enrollments and shrinking budgets have caused dioceses across the United States to consolidate parishes, resulting in the closure of spiritual homes in many communities.

In Everett, Mass., St. Therese’s, an ethnically diverse parish with substantial numbers of Latino, Haitian and African members, was closed in 2010 after a six-year vigil led by parishioners. In New York City, parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Angels led a similar vigil, holding services on the sidewalk in front of the parish building for years after its official closing in 2007. Like St. Cajetan’s, the parish had been a cornerstone institution for Latinos in the neighborhood.

Declining numbers of vocations to the priesthood, contracting parish enrollments and shrinking budgets have caused dioceses across the United States to consolidate parishes, resulting in the closure of spiritual homes in many communities. Dioceses search for mechanisms to cut costs while still serving their diverse constituencies. There is a pattern, however, of the collateral damage from parish consolidation and closure falling upon communities with the least power in these processes, including Latino Catholics and other Catholic communities of color.

While Latinos help the number of Catholics flourish in the southern and western United States, the dynamics of Catholicism in this region—especially in relation to race, ethnicity, culture and class—are still largely ignored or misunderstood. This history puts a wrinkle in the narrative of the growth of Latino Catholicism in the United States and the progressive incorporation of Latinos into the life of the church. Confronting this history presents an opportunity to grapple with dynamics of erasure, resistance and survival that have characterized Latino Catholic life. Further, understanding this history offers a new perspective on the current state of Latinos in the church.

 

The Heart of the Neighborhood

Opening in 1926, St. Cajetan’s was the Latino parish of the Auraria neighborhood. Neighbors met at the parish to make friends, raise children and build community. While the Latino residents of the Auraria neighborhood were forced to relocate throughout the Denver metro area and Colorado’s Front Range region in the early 1970s, their recollections of their lives in the neighborhood are documented in an oral history project, Auraria Remembered.

A research team at the Community College of Denver—one of the academic institutions located at the Auraria Higher Education Center—conducted interviews with former neighborhood residents. Interviewers asked the residents to reflect on many aspects of their experience of life in the neighborhood. Former residents recounted descriptions of their favorite bars, neighborhood landmarks and interesting or unusual members of the community. All the interviewees emphasized the centrality of St. Cajetan’s parish to the life of the Latino community in Auraria. According to the authors of the study, “The Hispanic people did not have much at the time; they did not have a public institution where they could mingle and feel important. St. Cajetan’s became that place.”

"Every Sunday was like a holiday because we’d all dress up and go to church. The church was always packed.”

“Our social life was built around St. Cajetan’s…. Our lives were centered around the church,” according to Nea López-Stoner, a former resident. Auraria’s residents spent their Sundays and holidays attending Mass at St. Cajetan’s. “Of course, every Sunday was like a holiday because we’d all dress up and go to church,” Russell DeLeon said. “The church was always packed.”

Before his career as a playwright and Chicano activist, Tony García was baptized at St. Cajetan’s and served as an altar boy there. According to Mr. García, most of the parish’s activities were rooted in Mexican culture. “I remember the Masses were held in Spanish and we sang Spanish songs,” he said. In this way, St. Cajetan’s was simultaneously a source for Catholic and Latino identity for the residents of the neighborhood.

Some of the neighborhood’s activities were located at St. Elizabeth’s of Hungary, an Anglo and German parish a few blocks away that remains open to this day. But St. Cajetan’s was the premier parish for Latinos in Auraria. Louise Vigil said some of the Latino families elected to send their children to the school at St. Elizabeth’s parish. Nonetheless, St. Cajetan’s was the heart of the neighborhood, she said, “really and truly deep down—everything else was at St. Cajetan’s.”

In 1969, the city of Denver called for a vote on a special bond election to secure funds for building the Auraria Higher Education Center that would force residents to move from the neighborhood. As the heart of the neighborhood’s social life, St. Cajetan’s and the Catholic Church became a center of resistance against the forced relocation of the community. The parish began the Auraria Relocation Organization, advocating just treatment of the residents of the neighborhood. Members of the A.R.O. organized to keep the parish open, visiting every Catholic parish in Denver to deliver leaflets arguing their case. Yet the Sunday before the election, Archbishop James Casey promulgated a letter to be read from the pulpit at every parish in the archdiocese encouraging Catholics to vote in favor of the bond. The bond issue passed, the community members were relocated and St. Cajetan’s was shut down.

The parish building now exists as a cultural center at the Auraria campus, hosting a variety of events, performances and exhibits. Still, the bitter legacy of closure resonates in the memories of Denver’s Westside Latinos, a constant reminder of church leaders’ willingness to abandon their community.

Writing and performing “The Miracle on Tepeyac” allowed Mr. García to wrestle with the complex relationship between Latinos and the Catholic Church. In countering the Latino community’s efforts, the archdiocese’s actions helped to dismantle a beloved neighborhood and parish. At the same time, the Catholic faith—and specifically, devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe—helped to sustain the community through the trauma of its abandonment.

 

Fighting for Survival

The closing of St. Cajetan’s is but one example of the struggles of Denver’s Latino Catholics to maintain its communities and traditions in the face of opposition from institutional forces. Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on Denver’s Northside faced a dramatic conflict in 2009, when its pastor decided to cover an altar mural, painted by a parishioner, of Guadalupe’s appearance to Juan Diego.

Painted by a member of the parish at the invitation of the church’s previous pastor, the mural served as a source of sustaining beauty for the parish as they participated in struggles for social justice. The new pastor, however, argued that the mural could distract the faithful from the true intentions of the Eucharist. Parishioners organized vigils and protests to keep the mural, with no success. With the support of the archdiocese, the parish installed a white wall in front of the mural, effectively turning the mural into one wall of a utility closet. The parishioners came to refer to the mural of Guadalupe as “Our Lady of the Broom Closet.” A framed image of Guadalupe is now featured prominently behind the pulpit, but the image of Juan Diego has disappeared from the sanctuary.

“The community was invited to participate more fully in the parish, where they could receive all the services that a parish can offer, and to take advantage of opportunities to grow their faith.”

On the other side of town, another Latino church community faced a fight for its existence. In 2017, the community at Our Lady of Visitation, located on the outskirts of Denver in unincorporated Adams County, received word that the archdiocese would close their church, which was a mission church of Holy Trinity Parish. The church’s families, some of whom had worshiped there for generations, organized a grassroots campaign to save their community. One of the church members was Federico Peña, the former mayor of Denver and secretary of transportation under President Bill Clinton. Mr. Peña allowed use of his public status and famous name to draw attention to meetings and rallies to save the Our Lady of Visitation. Like St. Cajetan’s and Our Lady of Guadalupe, however, the community’s petitions were denied. The parish was shuttered for good in early 2018.

Last year, the Archdiocese of Denver defended its actions at Our Lady of Visitation by emphasizing its status as a mission of a particular parish. “A few streets away is the parish of the Holy Trinity to which the mission belongs,” read a note from Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodríguez on the closure. “The community was invited to participate more fully in the parish, where they could receive all the services that a parish can offer, and to take advantage of opportunities to grow their faith.” In addition to Bishop Rodríguez’s note, the Archdiocese of Denver provided the following statement: “The Vatican recently responded to a review of the situation and upheld the Archdiocese of Denver’s decision.”

The Archdiocese of Denver reaches out to Latino Catholics by offering Spanish-language Masses at several parishes and through the Centro de Juan Diego, which offers help with legal services, taxes and other social services. Indeed, Centro de Juan Diego provides a compelling model for outreach centers that can be replicated in other dioceses. Yet these services do not compensate for the social toll taken on communities like Our Lady of Visitation, an institution that knit together generations of this Latino Catholic community.

Bishop Rodríguez acknowledged the closure of Our Lady of Visitation as a tremendous loss to its members even as he stresses the need to “make more efficient use of the resources we have,” especially the need to carefully allocate a limited number of priests to celebrate the Masses in the archdiocese.

In her book, Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church, Tricia C. Bruce discusses how dioceses have tried to respond to the needs of marginalized racial and ethnic Catholic communities even as parishes have been shifted, moved and consolidated.

“With fewer priests, many dioceses are rethinking the way they organize local communities of Catholics. Some use personal parishes alongside territorial parishes as a way to consolidate Catholics who share ethnic, linguistic or other needs,” according to Ms. Bruce. “This means that some—but not all— parishes assume a higher responsibility to serve the specialized needs of Catholics of color.”

“With fewer priests, many dioceses are rethinking the way they organize local communities of Catholics." 

Some dioceses have designated specific parishes to accommodate Latino and black communities that have been moved from their home parishes. This model allows for a continued presence of the community amid the upheaval of diocesan restructuring, Ms. Bruce noted. But this strategy has led to the closure of neighborhood parishes like St. Cajetan’s that have served as the heart of their communities for generations.

“Catholics of color may be told that their territorial parish has closed, and that they should instead worship alongside co-ethnics at a new personal parish far from their neighborhood,” she said.

Further, Ms. Bruce said that while many of the churches closed by dioceses had been established to serve as national parishes for various European immigrant communities, these parishes had often come to serve Latino communities as their former ethnic groups relocated to more prosperous neighborhoods and parishes. Shuttering national churches, therefore, has exacerbated the erasure of Latino communities who have found homes in these parishes and neighborhoods.

Some churches have been able to halt their closure. St. Mary’s of the Angels in Roxbury, Mass., led a successful campaign to remain open after it had been slated for closure by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2004. Susan Reynolds, assistant professor of Catholic studies at Candler School of Theology, has conducted ethnographic research involving this church community. She attributed St. Mary’s successful campaign to its ability to prove that the parish is a significant institution for its entire community. While the parish does not have much money, it serves as a vital social center for Roxbury and Egleston Square, offering common space for neighbors to meet and socialize. Led by its lay members, the parish advocates for other institutions in the neighborhood, including a public library and a local Y.M.C.A. “If the parish were closed,” Ms. Reynolds stated, “the entire community of Egleston Square would suffer tremendously.”

“If the parish were closed, the entire community of Egleston Square would suffer tremendously.”

As the closing of St. Cajetan’s demonstrates, however, making the case for the public significance of a parish or church does not always guarantee its survival. In closing and relocating Latino parishes and churches, dioceses often undermine crucial social structures that sustain the broader community and thus contribute to the societal common good. Indeed, parish reorganization projects have both ecclesiastical and public implications, influencing the thriving of the community well beyond parish walls. These dynamics must be accounted for as dioceses consider the impact of consolidation plans on Latino Catholics and the larger community.

 

What Our Eyes Have Seen

“The bishop believes I am mistaken, mistaking what my eyes have seen and my heart knows,” says Juan Diego in “The Miracle on Tepeyac,” lamenting Bishop Zumárraga’s disregard for his message from Guadalupe. His words resonate with the cry of Padre Tomás’s parishioners: they long for their community and their struggles to be seen and heard. They long for their dignity to be recognized and honored.

In 1994, Su Teatro returned to St. Cajetan’s to perform “The Miracle on Tepeyac” in the community’s former sanctuary. The play’s writer and director, Tony García, said presenting his work in this context allowed him to tell “the story of a poor peasant who petitions the archbishop for a church, a priest who has a church and is unsure of his role in the church, performed in a church that the community has lost.” Written and performed against the backdrop of this community’s struggle, “The Miracle on Tepeyac” calls Catholics to a reckoning for a history of Latino Catholic parishes—those that still stand and those that have been lost—and their significance for the future of Latino Catholics in the United States.

How can dioceses hear and honor Latino Catholic communities? A shift from a culture of clericalism to a culture of solidarity may be required.

The culture of clericalism marginalizes the voices and perspectives of the laity for the sake of preserving its own power and protecting its own interests. This marginalization is a persistent feature of church life, including in many Latino parishes and churches. It is a culture that marginalizes or erases the Juan Diegos of today from the church, unwilling or unable to hear the truth of his testimony.

A culture of solidarity, on the other hand, views all members of the church as possessing dignity and as worthy of respect. It hears and heeds the sense of the faithful, attuned to the truths that are disclosed from among the people. It seeks to build relationships of mutuality and respect that allow for the voices of the laity to be heard. This culture of solidarity is necessary for hearing the cries of Latino communities who have lost their churches and those who are fighting for their communities to remain open.

The culture of solidarity recognizes that Latino churches are crucial to the thriving of Latino neighborhoods and thus to the common good of society. Latino Catholic parishes have a unique capacity to equip their communities for fruitful civic engagement. Stifling lay communities reinforces social disempowerment and fosters disengagement of the church with the larger world. Dioceses thus have an interest in fostering lay leadership to promote the church’s mission of charity and justice in these communities.

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