A diverse, yet universal Church

Father Refugio Onate, pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Norcross, Ga., is from Mexico. Three other parish priests hail from Korea, Nigeria and India. Among the three of them, Masses are celebrated in English, Spanish, Korean and French. This works out well for many immigrant parishioners who, while they understand English, prefer liturgies in their native tongues.

“Sometimes language is more than understanding. It’s a feeling,” Father Onate said. “The Masses with mariachi touch me in a different way. It connects me with my childhood.”

Traditions from home

Ethnic parishes such as St. Patrick’s enrich the life of the Church in the United States. The Polish Catholic Apostolate in the Archdiocese of Atlanta is headed by Elizabeth Gurtler-Krawczynska, who found no Polish priests for immigrants when she arrived in 1984. Now there are weekly Masses in Polish and a continuation of traditions like painted eggs and the blessing of baskets of Easter food. Many events celebrate the Blessed Mother.

“We have a procession in June for Corpus Christi, and on Aug. 15 (the feast of the Assumption) we have pictures of Our Lady of Czestochowa, and bouquets of fresh flowers and herbs,” she said. “You can also see children in folk dresses.”

At the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, Imelda Solano is the Hispanic ministry coordinator. A native of Peru, Solano remembers how her family had a love for Mary.

“We would be playing in the street and at 6 o’clock we had to go back home because our grandmother was going to lead us in the Rosary,” she said.

Brazilian Catholics call Our Lady of Aparecida their patron based on an apparition seen by three fishermen in the 18th century and a statue they found.

Cubans honor Our Lady of Charity, who appeared to three men caught in a storm at sea. When they prayed to the Blessed Mother, the storm subsided and they found a statue of the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus floating in the water.

“Last year, we celebrated 400 years since the discovery of that statue,” said Fernando Munoz, who heads the committee on the Virgin of Charity in Atlanta.

“At Mass, we remember those who have gone on to meet their creator,” Munoz said. “Traditional songs to Our Lady are sung and, in front of the U.S. and Cuban flags, we sing the national anthem of Cuba. Afterward, we move to the reception hall to renew friendships over Cuban sandwiches, plantain chips, guava pastries and Cuban coffee.”

When Msgr. Francis Phong arrived in 1972, few Vietnamese families lived in Atlanta. Now, more than 10,000 people attend his church, Our Lady of Vietnam, and also Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Parish.

In October, they honor Our Lady of La Vang, who appeared in the 18th century during Catholic persecution. One community in hiding, praying the Rosary every night at the foot of a tree, witnessed the appearance of Mary holding the infant Jesus. According to tradition, she comforted them and told them to boil leaves from the tree for medicine to cure the ill.

United in devotion, values

Devotion to the Blessed Mother unites nearly 20 diverse communities to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., for an annual May pilgrimage.

Our Lady of Charity
Cuban-Americans in the Atlanta archdiocese maintain strong devotions to Our Lady of Charity. Photo courtesy of Fernando Munoz

“We have a special devotion to Mary, and I think it’s because she is approachable to all of us,” said coordinator Carolyn Ng, a native of Hong Kong.

Another common denominator in the ethnicities, she added, is their strong family values of love and respect for elders that they pass on to generations.

But challenges remain. Very few priests speak her native Cantonese, fewer speak Thai.

“The Hmong people are suffering because they need to find priests to speak their language,” she said. “Other than that, we are actively involved in catechetical ministries and some do social concerns. We are contributing to the Church in various ways.”

Of the 1.2 million Catholics in the Diocese of Orange, Calif., 40,000 are Vietnamese.

“When Saigon fell in 1975, many refugees immigrated here, and our diocese welcomed them,” said Ryan Lilyengren, director of communications.

Catholicism among Vietnamese dates back to 18th-century missionaries and remained strong despite persecution. The Vatican estimates that from 130,000 to 300,000 Vietnamese were martyred.

In 1988, Blessed John Paul II canonized the 117 whose names are known. They are remembered Nov. 24 on the feast of the Vietnamese Martyrs, which in Orange draws about 5,000 people for procession and worship.

In February, the Vietnamese community adapts the ancient Tet Festival (lunar new year) to their faith and celebrates with traditional clothing, drums and firecrackers. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. This is part one of a three-part Year of Faith series on the diversity of faithful within the Church. The next installment will run Oct 27.

Native Traditions
Jesuit Father Joseph Retzel has served Native Americans in north-central Montana for 53 years, and at age 86, he still dances at powwows and prays for the Lord to bless them.