e-mail us
N.Y. City home for a new immigrant church

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Brooklyn, N.Y.

As the West Indian choir members filed into St. Matthew's Catholic Church, the choir for the Mass in Spanish filed out. Two hours later, Haitian choir members took their seats around the organ and hymns in Haitian Creole rang through the church.

Fr. Edward Smith came up the center aisle cloaked in green. It was his third Mass of the day and the third language. To Smith, a 57-year-old priest with short, spiky white hair and pale blue eyes, learning new languages has been an essential part of serving his parishioners in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

"When it comes to their prayer life," Smith said, "there is a certain comfort in praying in their own language."

Gathering every Sunday in this expansive room of stained glass panels, marble columns, high arched ceiling and pastel walls provides a special experience to the West Indians, Dominicans and Haitians in this heavily Caribbean neighborhood. Some parishioners, like Martha David, who has been coming to St. Matthew's for 20 years, go to Mass in both English and Creole. But, said David, "When I come to the Creole Mass, I feel something extra."

St. Matthew's is emblematic of the changing face of the Catholic church in New York and its changing languages. Multilingual deacons and priests have become increasingly common in New York Catholic churches, where Mass is celebrated in 30 languages, from Albanian to Vietnamese. Some churches have a Latin Mass.

Today in the New York Archdiocese, 2.2 million Catholics attend 411 parishes that celebrate Mass or provide sacraments in 30 languages. The neighboring Brooklyn Diocese has 1.5 million parishioners and 217 parishes with services in 25 languages.

In 1973, eight years after the Second Vatican Council dropped Latin as the exclusive liturgical language and approved Mass in the language of the people, the Brooklyn Diocese opened the Diocesan Language Institute. Language training became mandatory for seminarians at the Immaculate Conception Seminary on Long Island, which serves Brooklyn and Queens. Fr. Tom Fusco, dean of seminarians, said "It's certainly a high priority to prepare seminarians for a multicultural setting."

Language training

At the midpoint of their five-year training, seminarians spend a summer at the institute in Douglaston, Queens, in an intensive program studying Spanish, Italian or Haitian Creole. According to Fr. Bob Whelan, vocation director of the Brooklyn Diocese, roughly a third of current seminarians are foreign-born, some of whom study English as a second language. Among the 60 seminarians now in training in the diocese, 22 nationalities are represented.

Smith, ordained in 1965, had no language class as part of his preparation, but when his first assignment was to a parish with a growing Spanish-speaking membership, he realized he had to learn the language. When he came to St. Matthew's 12 years ago, he said Mass in Spanish and English, and a Haitian priest conducted the Creole Mass. When that priest left six years ago, Smith enrolled in Creole class at the institute. A year later he spent a month in a small interior village in Haiti, immersed in the language and culture.

Born in Long Island City to an Irish father and a Polish mother and raised in Queens Village, Smith's Creole has more of a Queens cadence than an island rhythm. But the Haitians at St. Matthew's, some of whom speak little English, react with big smiles when asked about Smith's Creole service. "He speaks Creole good," said Gerda Desravines. David concurs, "He's doing very well."

Smith is aware of his parishioners' appreciation. "They're thrilled that I learned to speak Creole," he said. With a few exceptions, "upper crust" Haitians, as Smith calls them, think the Mass should be in French. "They didn't think it was proper for a priest to speak Creole." he said.

The Haitian congregation presented a challenge not only to Smith, but also to St. Matthew's long-time organist, Lawrence Harris. Creole was codified as a written language only in the past few decades. Harris, a classically trained pianist, had no written hymns to use. He learned the songs by having a Haitian choir member sing them while he made the musical notation.

The adjustments in a multicultural parish are more than linguistic. "You not only switch languages," Smith said, "you switch into three different cultures." Dr. Paul Ferrotti, chairman of the Diocesan Language Institute, said the training for priests tries to address these cultural nuances. Mass in Creole and Spanish tends to be more emotional and longer. When Smith was ordained, he said, the unwritten rule was to limit your sermon to seven minutes. At St. Matthew's, sermons run closer to a half hour. "If I were to give a seven-minute sermon," he said, "I would be crucified."

Voodoo and santeria

Even though most Haitians and Dominicans are Catholic, voodoo and santeria , religions indigenous to their homelands, are also part of religious life. "I'm always putting out voodoo candles in the chapel or finding a chicken with its head cut off stuffed behind the statue of St. Anthony," Smith said, with resignation. "If our magic doesn't work, they go to their magic."

Occasionally, a parishioner will come to Smith and ask that he say a prayer to undo some voodoo. "Without giving credence to the voodoo or the santeria, you have to deal with it as part of people's psychological makeup," he said. "It's a way of reaching people."

Relaxed, with his clerical collar open, Smith leaned back in his chair in his rectory office, a cluttered room with pale yellow walls and a wood-framed fireplace. He was flanked by his two large dogs. Smith has been studying Polish and two months ago added a Polish Mass to his repertoire. He said Polish will be his last new language.

"When the Orientals move in, I'm moving out," Smith said, laughing, "Not that I have anything against Orientals, but I'm too old to learn an Oriental language." Shifting between cultures can be a strain, he said, but it is a necessity. "If you can't communicate with the people, there's no sense being there. You can't really serve them."

Traditionally in New York, the church you attended as an immigrant was decided not by where you lived, but by where you came from. The mostly Irish Catholic population expanded with the arrival of German and French immigrants in the middle of the 19th century and with Italian immigrants in the early part of the 20th century.

The New York Archdiocese responded by establishing national parishes. In 1920, 51 of 113 parishes in Manhattan were national parishes. Irish immigrants would attend services presided over by an Irish priest. Italians and Poles had their own churches and priests. Then the demographics began to change.

By the 1960s, the Polish priest had a Spanish-speaking congregation. By the 1980s and into the 1990s, that same parish would have a priest trained at seminary to be bilingual in Spanish and English. His parishioners may now be from half a dozen cultures and speak as many languages.

How to provide pastoral services to an immigrant population growing in numbers and diversity has been an ongoing challenge in recent years. The Hispanic population, mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, swelled throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The makeup of the church in New York underwent another sweeping change in 1965, when federal immigration policy opened the borders to an influx of Asian, African and Caribbean immigrants.

In 1969 Pope Paul VI issued a pastoral letter directing bishops to establish new ways to serve immigrants. This marked the beginning of the end of national parishes and a shift to a system that aimed to incorporate immigrants into local parishes. "That was kind of like the bible of the church's work with immigrants in the beginning," said Fr. Ronald Marino, director of the Catholic Migration Office for the Brooklyn Diocese.

First migration office

Marino's office opened in 1971, two years after the pope's pastoral letter. It was the first Catholic agency of its kind in the country. The office provides legal services, education services, English lessons, administers citizenship tests, provides job training and coordinates immigrant pastoral services.

The diocese also established six official immigrant apostolates based on ethnic and linguistic groups: Italian, Hispanic, Chinese, Haitian, Polish and Korean. The Hispanic apostolate encompasses immigrants from 22 countries. In 1990, when Marino became director of the office, he asked the bishop to establish 11 more. Today the total has grown to 20. The most recently established, a Nigerian apostolate, had its inauguration in October.

Each ethnic apostolate has a priest coordinator who serves as liaison between the people, the director of ethnic affairs and a lay committee that acts as official advisers. The apostolates assess where groups are growing in a parish that had not previously served them and where priests are needed to celebrate Mass in other languages. "Each apostolate has leeway to decide how best to serve the community," Marino said.

Many priests in the New York Archdiocese and the Brooklyn Diocese are bilingual and many have taken it upon themselves to add more languages to their repertoire as the ethnic and national makeup of their parishes has changed. To further their understanding of their parishioners, recently ordained priests from St. Joseph's Seminary spent three weeks in the Dominican Republic in intensive study of the culture and language of New York's largest immigrant group.

As the need for more priests to celebrate Mass in a new language arises, the Migration Office arranges to bring priests into the diocese.

Often it is the parish priest who seeks assistance to serve his parishioners. "If pastors discern that the demographics of their parish is changing, they make a move to serve the needs of that group," said Msgr. Leslie J. Ivers, vice chancellor of the New York Archdiocese and director of ethnic affairs.

This is sometimes a delicate situation. The addition of Mass in another language or the influx of a sizable number of new immigrants can be threatening to the established congregation. The migration office tries to balance the concerns of the new group with the concerns of the majority. "We ask the pastor not to introduce new language services without consulting with the Catholic Migration Office," Marino said. "My general rule of thumb is before you open the doors you have to make sure that immigrants will feel welcome and that the majority group feels secure."

Apostolates vary greatly in size. There are 105 parishes that celebrate Mass in Spanish, 18 in Haitian, 12 with a Polish Mass, two Chinese and one Vietnamese. In most cases, to find Mass in their own language immigrants need to seek out and travel to that parish. The Migration Office has encouraged the apostolate to take an active role in outreach to their national communities with newsletters in the native languages. "They can't be content to fill a slot with a priest," Marino said.

Dave Ali, coordinator for pastoral services, said his parish, Church of the Guardian Angel, has daily Mass in English and Spanish, weekly Mass in Polish and a monthly Mass in the Indian language Malayalam and has recently added Mass in Tagalog, the Filipino language. As the number of Filipino residents of the parish began to grow, Ali did an informal survey. "They would not come out and say it, but I could tell they would love to have a Mass in their own language." A priest for the monthly Mass was arranged through the Filipino apostolate.

Bridging cultural gaps among different groups, including not only immigrants but also African-Americans, has been the mission of the New York Archdiocese's Intercultural Council, formed in March 1989 after the 1988 synod conducted by New York's Cardinal John O'Connor. The mission of the council is not just to serve different ethnic groups but to help increase understanding between them. The council comprises the archdiocese's eight ethnic apostolates and representatives of the three major archdiocesan departments, education, pastoral services and charities.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997