Cultural divide: St. Paul’s wrestles with serving a diverse congregation

March 2017 Posted in Community, People

By Steve Ritchie

The absence of a long-time parish employee, fears of losing Spanish-language religious education classes, and a change in venue for Spanish-language Sunday mass have rocked Silverton’s St. Paul Catholic Church community.

Recent tensions escalated into accusations of racism, discrimination and unfair treatment and led to a Feb. 28 meeting that filled the parish hall basement with concerned Hispanic parishioners.

Members of St. Paul’s Pastoral Council and Fr. Basil Lawrence, OSB, pastor of St. Paul Parish, met with approximately 300 parishioners seeking answers about why Sr. Rocio Moreno Soto, OSB, is no longer serving as the parish’s Hispanic Ministry Coordinator.

Sr. Rocio has served in the parish for the past 14 years. She is credited by many of the Hispanic members of the parish as being instrumental in increasing the number of Hispanic families attending St. Paul, and developing a strong religious education program for Spanish-speaking youth and adults.

Following the meeting, letters of protest – one reportedly signed by as many as 300 people – were sent to Fr. Basil, as well as to the Pastoral Council and to the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, which oversees the parish.

The letters continued to raise issues regarding Sr. Rocio’s departure from the parish, expressed fears that religious education classes would only be taught in English, and noted strained relationships between Fr. Basil and Hispanic parishioners.

On March 6, the Communications Office of the Archdiocese responded.

“Sr. Rocio Moreno Soto’s order (The Benedictine Sister of the Queen of Angels Monastery) requested that she be relieved of her ministerial responsibilities at St. Paul Parish in Silverton, and that she return to her home monastery to continue discerning how she can be best serve her community. She was not dismissed by Fr. Basil Lawrence or the Parish Council. Furthermore, any accusations of racism or discrimination in this decision are completely false.”

While the release did not specifically address the question of whether Spanish language instruction would be eliminated, it did contain the following statement:

“The Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Hispanic Ministries, as well as the Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation, look forward to working with Fr. Basil Lawrence, Fr. Philip Waibel and the Parish Council of St. Paul Parish to discover new and better ways of serving the Spanish-speaking community in Silverton and throughout western Oregon. “

In response to a follow up contact by Our Town, David Renshaw, Communications Director for the Archdiocese, said in an email that “the current Sacramental Prep and Religious Education classes will continue as is through the end of the year.”

Fr. Basil confirmed that last week in a phone conversation with Our Town, stating, “That would include the Spanish mass and all catechesis and religious education currently taught in Spanish.”

He went on to say that no long-term decision has been made about whether the religious education classes and sacramental preparation classes for youth would continue to be taught in both English and Spanish, or whether the two sets of classes would be combined into one set that would be taught only in English. 

“We will begin discussing what to do with K-12 religious education classes. That is the state where we’re at. We will begin a discussion and a discernment with the entire parish about this. Religious education for our youth is the only thing on the table. There are no plans to cancel the Spanish mass or the adult religious education classes now taught in Spanish.”

Several Hispanic parish members told Our Town that the statements from the Archdiocese and Fr. Basil did not change their feelings nor ease their fears about losing the Spanish language classes. They also said they remain skeptical about Sr. Rocio’s abrupt departure, believing she was forced out.

One long-time member of the parish, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal, said that even though she is bi-lingual, practicing her religion in her native language was very important to her and her family.

“In the public schools and the workplace we have to speak English, and that is fine. If I go to the store I speak English. But not in the house of God – that is different. We have to continue our culture and spiritual traditions in our language, because of my ancestors, my parents, my grandparents.”

A high school-age student who also requested anonymity, said she has gone through Spanish classes throughout her religious education at St. Paul.  She and her peer group are very concerned about losing Spanish there, she added.

“All the kids who are the future of this church and who want to follow the traditions of their families won’t feel welcomed in this parish… My parents got married in this church, and I was baptized and confirmed here. This is a church I look up to and now it’s like I don’t want that to be taken away.

“We have 400 families who come to worship and learn about God in their language. So it’s hard to think about that being taken away,” she said, explaining that the importance of family and their native language are intertwined in the Hispanic culture.

“At school I learn in English but at home we only speak Spanish in our family.”

Much of the growth at St. Paul Church in recent years has come from Hispanic congregants. A 2011 Our Town article quoted former pastor Fr. William Hammelman, OSB, saying that the Spanish mass is “overflowing,” and that the church has added many young Hispanic families.

Fr. Basil, who has been pastor at St. Paul’s since last summer, said the parish census from fall 2016 indicates that weekend mass attendance is about 750.

There are four masses each weekend, three in English and one in Spanish. The attendance at the single Spanish mass is largest of the four, averaging about 300.

The Spanish mass was recently moved into the basement of the parish hall rather than in the church sanctuary, where the English masses are held.

“That is a relatively new phenomenon because of our church construction project,” Fr. Basil said. “I met with the fire marshal and the city inspector. The Spanish mass has the largest attendance in our church and they were not comfortable having that many people in the church at one time. The only other facility we have available is the parish hall basement, so for the duration of the construction we have to hold the Spanish mass there.”

When asked what steps would be necessary to rebuild trust with Hispanic parishioners, Fr. Basil said, “The most important thing is to dispel the falsehoods and misinformation that is being promoted at this time by individuals that do not belong to the parish… The people need to know that St. Paul’s has been a very welcoming parish and a parish that wants to continue to serve all of its parishioners in the best way that the church in Christ wants us to.”

The characterization of outsiders causing the disruption was rejected by the Hispanic parishioners interviewed.

They countered that Fr. Basil has made no effort to get to know the Hispanic parish community, and described his behavior toward them as “aggressive” and “disrespectful.”

“We are two communities in one church,” said one. “We (Hispanics) respect them (Anglo parishioners). We respect their traditions. They need to respect us and our culture, traditions and values.”

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