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For Hispanic immigrants, St. Cecelia a blessing

Besides a Mass in Spanish, St. Cecelia offers English classes and helps people adjust to life in the U.S.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003

When Maria Irigoyen and her mother, Rosa, moved to Clearwater from Chiclayo, Peru, nine years ago, neither of them could say even "hello" in English.

Lost in an unfamiliar country, adrift in a new culture, they were drawn to the only place they felt at home: St. Cecelia Catholic Church on Jasmine Way in Clearwater, where there was a Spanish Mass.

"I felt comfortable someone else knew the same language we did," said Maria Irigoyen, 19 and a senior at St. Petersburg College. She has been accepted into the University of South Florida medical school and plans to be a neurologist.

"You feel more familiar," she said.

Church member Julia Forman, 85 and originally from Puerto Rico, organized the first Spanish Mass "with God's help" at St. Cecelia the year before the Irigoyens moved to the United States. As Maria remembers it, about 100 people attended the services in those days.

Now the Mass at 8 p.m. Sundays draws up to 850 Hispanics, most of them Mexican immigrants, according to church officials.

And for the first time in St. Cecelia's history, more Hispanics than Anglos will be confirmed by Bishop W. Thomas Larkin in a ceremony on March 2.

During confirmation, a church sacrament, a bishop rubs holy oil, called chrism, on the forehead of the people being confirmed. That signifies they have been touched by the Holy Spirit so that they may live up to their Catholic faith.

The 2000 Census accounted for 9,754 Hispanic people in Clearwater, 9 percent of the city's population. The majority of them are Catholics. But diocese officials say there are far more Hispanics than the Census indicates, and they are quickly filling local churches to worship and meet others from their homelands.

"We estimate there are 188,000 Catholic Hispanics in the area," said Sandra Bonilla, director of Hispanic ministries for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. "Most don't register at church. They don't have to (officially join) in Mexico or South America, so they don't know to do it here. So no tabs are kept to know exactly how many are here."

The exploding Spanish-speaking population is presenting new challenges for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, but officials say they are prepared and are "going all out to provide leadership development and training for Spanish communities," said Bonilla.

"All the various departments are providing materials in English and Spanish," she said.

Bonilla said seminarians in Florida are required to learn to say Mass in Spanish, and the diocese has brought in a lot of seasoned priests who already are fluent in the language.

One of them is the Rev. Edward Walwanduch, who performs the Spanish Mass at St. Cecelia's on Sunday evenings.

Father Eduardo, as he is known to Hispanics at St. Cecelia, was born in Poland, served six years at churches in Peru and speaks five languages, including Spanish. He is one of five Polish priests from the Diocese of St. Petersburg serving the Hispanic community in most cases simply because they speak the language and are familiar with the culture.

He said the Hispanic parishioners chose 8 p.m. Sundays to celebrate Mass because "they are working in the cleaning services, cleaning hotels and restaurants until 6 p.m.," he said.

He said 80 percent to 85 percent of Hispanic St. Cecelia members come from Mexico, specifically Hildalgo, a poor central Mexican state.

Walwanduch oversees the church's prayer groups, Bible groups, baptism classes, English classes and confirmation classes (this year he has 43 Hispanic and 35 Anglo students) and marriage-preparation classes -- all in Spanish.

He said it's common for couples to take his marriage-preparation classes at St. Cecelia, travel to Mexico to be married by a priest there, then come back to Clearwater to live.

The people who go through the confirmation program, however, are confirmed at St. Cecelia. The typical age for a confirmation student is about 14, but the Hispanics new to the United States sometimes are much older. In this year's class, one student is 45. Last year, he had a 67-year-old student.

"They aren't confirmed in their own country because of a lack of priests," said Walwanduch.

But Walwanduch doesn't simply focus on their religious training and sacraments. He helps with their basic needs.

Most of the people who come to him are poor, and need help finding free or low-cost food and clothing.

"We direct them to the food pantry and the Salvation Army," he said. "Some people do not read or write so you have to guide them."

But when new immigrants come to the United States, he said, they are most stressed about the language.

"It is hard when you never learn English as a child. Most learn basic English to communicate, some never do," Walwanduch said.

But knowing Spanish is often not enough.

"Sometimes I have to have a translator (to hear) confessions," he said. "The people from a region called Otomi, a region of Mexico and I do not know the language."

Indeed, the diocese counts people from 21 Hispanic countries as members.

"They come here with a lack of knowledge of how the culture works, how the country works," said Bonilla. "So they go to the churches. That's where they find their refuge, that's where they find their anchor."

-- Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or .

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