Built By Immigrants, U.S. Catholic Churches Bolstered By Them Once Again

Sep 9, 2015
Originally published on October 20, 2015 6:40 am

Nearly a century ago, immigrants from Germany and Ireland founded St. Helena Church in a working-class neighborhood in north Philadelphia.

Immigrants, and their children, still fill the pews at St. Helena's — but the vast majority of them are now from Vietnam, Latin America, the Philippines and Africa. Weekly masses are conducted in Spanish and Vietnamese as well as English. The senior priest, the Rev. Joseph Trinh, is himself a Vietnamese refugee. One of his associate priests is from Haiti, and another is from Ecuador.

"I tell people here that we didn't have the opportunity to build this beautiful church, but now it is our turn to upkeep it and pass it on to the next generation," Trinh says. "We were welcomed here, and now we have to welcome other groups that come in."

Immigrants may be unpopular in some corners of American society, but not with the U.S. Catholic Church, which depends on immigrant members to replenish its ranks. More than a quarter of today's U.S. Catholics were born outside the country, and another 15 percent are the children of immigrants. Hispanics account for the largest proportion of the immigrant influx, but Asians are moving up fast.

Not surprisingly, immigrants will get a lot of attention from Pope Francis on his upcoming U.S. visit. In New York, he'll go to a school that serves immigrant students, and he's expected to follow that with a personal meeting with immigrant families. He will meet again with foreign-born Catholics in Philadelphia, and he is likely to speak out on immigration issues in his address to the World Meeting of Families.

"We're in the twilight of the white ethnic European Catholic Church," says William D'Antonio, a sociologist who has been studying U.S. Catholics for nearly 60 years. "We are in a new era. Within 40 years, this will be a colorful church."

The shift is already evident in many urban parishes. Across the northeast United States, for instance, many of the Catholic parishes established decades ago by European immigrants have closed due to declining membership. For a while, it appeared St. Helena might join them.

"I remember sitting in church one day and feeling the void," says 66-year-old Mary Black, a St. Helena member for more than 40 years. "People were moving out, and it was that scary feeling of transition, of 'What's going to happen?' But then they came. I really think this church would be shuttered if it wasn't for the Vietnamese community and other immigrants."

Membership in the U.S. Catholic Church as a whole is dropping, according to the Pew Research Center, but the trend would be far sharper if not for the foreign-born.

"Immigrants are a large and important part of the church in the United States," says Greg Smith, Pew's associate research director, "and their importance to the Catholic faithful will only grow, because they're much younger than the Catholic population as a whole."

With the church depending so heavily on immigrant members, Catholic leaders are outspoken supporters of immigration reform. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput have both criticized Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his anti-immigrant rhetoric. In remarks delivered at a recent immigration panel discussion, Chaput also singled out the Obama administration over its deportation policy, which he said was "brutally" affecting immigrant families.

Hispanic immigrants have borne the greatest burden of those policies. About four out of five foreign-born Catholics come from countries in the Western Hemisphere, according to Pew data. Many immigrants from Mexico have settled in the southern and western parts of the United States, and the share of U.S. Catholics living in that region is growing.

At St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Oakland, Calif., Spanish-language Masses are far more popular than English-language Masses.

"[When] I say English Mass on Saturday nights, [the pews] are practically empty," says Monsignor Antonio Valdivia. "Then I say a Spanish Mass, be it Saturday night or Sunday morning, and they're filled to bursting, and you see complete families."

The shift in the geographic center of Catholicism from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West is presenting a challenge to the church, says Smith of the Pew Research Center.

"This has real repercussions, in terms of trying to find a match between where the resources are, where the parishes are, where the priests are, where the schools are, and where the people are," he says.

If that problem can be solved, however, immigrants can revitalize Catholic congregations. St. Helena in Philadelphia, for instance, counts about 200 Vietnamese families among its congregation. Longtime parishioners there say that as they get to know the immigrant newcomers, they appreciate what they bring to the community.

"The warmth of the Spanish people to me is so heartfelt," says Mary Black, the longtime parishioner. "The devoutness of the Vietnamese always inspires me. The folks that come from Africa with their dress, Indians who come in saris — it's an amazing experience."

Her friend Anita Repsch, a St. Helena member for 58 years, says she often attends Mass with her immigrant friends.

"We go to Mass that's Spanish or Vietnamese, and because our Mass is so structured, we can follow it and know what's happening. It doesn't have to be in our language," 71-year-old Repsch says. "Basically we can pray together, no matter what language we use."

As the first prelate from Latin America, Pope Francis is promoting such cross-cultural tolerance, and 84-year-old sociologist William D'Antonio, himself a practicing Catholic, says he's encouraged by the changes in his church.

"We could be a model for the world of how Catholics from all over know how to live together," he says.

With additional reporting by Richard Gonzales.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Pope Francis visits the U.S. this month, he's expected to speak frankly about immigration reform. He has asked to meet personally with immigrants in New York and Philadelphia, and there's a reason for that. The U.S. Catholic Church needs immigrants. More than a quarter of today's believers in the U.S. were born outside of the country. Fifteen percent are children of immigrants. NPR's Tom Gjelten has more.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Fifth Street in north Philadelphia is and always has been a working-class corridor. St. Helena Catholic Church, at the corner with Godfrey Avenue, is a massive, no-nonsense, granite square. The steps out front are in need of repair.

MARIE ALBERT: That building was the original church, and the school was on the next two floors.

GJELTEN: Eighty-four-year-old Sister Marie Albert got her Catholic primary education here back when this was an all-white immigrant community.

ALBERT: When I grew up, I mean, everybody on this street were Catholic, you know (laughter). There were very few kids who didn't come here to school. When the parish started, it was German and Irish.

GJELTEN: Fifth Street is still largely a newcomer neighborhood, but St. Helena now serves Hispanics, Asians and Africans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARDY VILLARSON: May Almighty God have mercy on us. Forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

UNIDENTIFIED PARISHIONERS: Amen.

VILLARSON: Lord, have mercy.

GJELTEN: Presiding at mass on this weekday morning at St. Helena is Father Gardy Villarson. He's from Haiti. Most of the hundred or so worshipers attending today are Hispanic or Asian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLARSON: Let us pray...

GJELTEN: About 200 Vietnamese families worship at this church. The singing of the liturgy this morning is led by a 13-year-old Vietnamese-American boy, Adrian Pham.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADRIAN PHAM: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

UNIDENTIFIED PARISHIONERS: (Singing) Hallelujah.

GJELTEN: Only a handful of U.S.-born white parishioners are in hand. Across the northeast United States, many of the Catholic parishes established years ago by European immigrants have closed because of declining membership. For a while, it appeared St. Helena might join them. Mary Black has been a member here for more than 40 years, from when it was packed every Sunday with people like herself to when it started to empty out.

MARY BLACK: I remember one day sitting in church and feeling, like, the void of lots of people moving out and that scary feeling of transition, like, what's going to happen? And then, they came.

GJELTEN: Masses in Vietnamese and Spanish were added to the schedule. The number of worshipers grew. The parish survived.

BLACK: I really think this church would be shuttered if it wasn't for the Vietnamese community and other immigrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH TRINH: (Speaking Vietnamese).

GJELTEN: Eight men from the committee that plans Vietnamese activities at St. Helena opened this evening meeting with a prayer. They're led by Father Joseph Trinh, the senior priest at the church and president of the Federation of Vietnamese Catholics in the United States. They're here to discuss the pope's visit to Philadelphia and how to handle all the Vietnamese Catholics coming to see him. But these men also show up at the church whenever volunteers are needed. Dave Nguyen says he knows St. Helena was built decades ago by European immigrants, but he says it's now up to new Americans like himself to maintain the parish. The old ones are mostly gone.

DAVE NGUYEN: They left behind, and we are immigrant, Vietnamese and Hispanics, Africa or Jamaica. It's everybody here. We do not have the opportunity to build the church, but we have the opportunity to upkeep the church.

GJELTEN: The immigrant influx nationwide has revitalized Catholic churches in particular. Mostly it's Hispanics, but Asians are moving up fast. William D'Antonio is a professor of sociology at Catholic University.

WILLIAM D'ANTONIO: We're in the twilight of the white ethnic European Catholic Church.

GJELTEN: No wonder the Catholic Church today is a big supporter of immigration reform. Immigrants are the church's future.

D'ANTONIO: Within 40 years, this will be such a colorful church. We could be a model for the world of how Catholics from all over know how to live together.

GJELTEN: In fact, newly intermingling cultures can bring conflict. But at St. Helena, Mary Black and other longtime parishioners say that as they get to know these immigrant newcomers, they appreciate what they bring to the congregation.

BLACK: The warmth of the Spanish people to me is so heartfelt. The devoutness of the Vietnamese always inspires me. The folks that come from Africa with their dress of - I forget what they're called, but Indians that come in saris, it's just an amazing experience.

GJELTEN: Mary's friend Anita Repsch, a St. Helena member for 58 years, often attends mass with her immigrant friends.

ANITA REPSCH: We go to a mass that's Spanish or Vietnamese. And because our mass is so structured, we can follow it and know what's happening. It doesn't have to be in our language. Basically, we can pray together no matter what language.

GJELTEN: We can pray together, what longtime St. Helena parishioners have learned and exactly what Pope Francis, the first from Latin America, wants to promote when he visits this country later this month. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.