Holy Night: How an Idaho church is adapting to a growing demographic

Holy Night: How an Idaho church is adapting to a growing demographic

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JEROME — At five minutes to midnight the pews emptied as worshippers at St. Jerome Catholic Church, many of whom were there since the celebration started four hours earlier, huddled around the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Beneath the golden-framed image were dozens of roses and candles left by parishioners and above were twisted, red and green curtains that stood for the colors of the Mexican flag. At the cue of the priest, they sang “Las Mañanitas” (“Little Mornings”), a traditional birthday song, and continued with hymns for 30 minutes straight to signal the start of the Feast of Guadalupe.

Serenade of the Precious Mother

Worshippers gather for the Serenade of the Precious Mother at St. Jerome Catholic Church Dec. 11. Mexican Catholics celebrate the day the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have first appeared in Mexico by singing hymns at midnight.

The Feast of Guadalupe — commonly known by Mexicans as her “birthday” — is a celebration of the day it is said Guadalupe appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, who was canonized in 2002, at the Hill of Tepeyac in Mexico.

St. Jerome Catholic Church began this celebration, a two-day event honoring Mexico’s patron saint, as a response to Latinos flocking to the church.

Serenade of the Precious Mother

Worshippers gather for the Serenade of the Precious Mother at St. Jerome Catholic Church Dec. 11. Mexican Catholics celebrate the day the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have first appeared in Mexico by singing hymns at midnight.

“They’ve always liked what we’re doing,” Claudia Gonzalez, secretary at St. Jerome who also teaches Aztec dancing that is performed at the church, said in Spanish. “Thank God they welcomed us from the start.”

The Diocese of Boise says more than half of the estimated 179,791 Catholics in Idaho are Latino. This shift in demographics is forcing Catholic parishes statewide to restructure to cater to the thousands of Latinos who attend Mass every weekend.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a guidebook in 2014, “Best Practices for Shared Parishes: So That They May All Be One,” to help churches navigate the changing landscape.

Much of this integration began as early as the 1960s, especially in places like California, Arizona and New Mexico, and a second wave began in the 1980s as Latinos began moving in force to agricultural areas in northernmost states in search of jobs.

Serenade of the Precious Mother

Worshippers gather for the Serenade of the Precious Mother at St. Jerome Catholic Church Dec. 11. Mexican Catholics celebrate the day the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have first appeared in Mexico by singing hymns at midnight.

“There are more immigrants in rural places because they’re chasing jobs,” Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, said in a phone interview earlier this month. “With that in mind most of those immigrants are Roman Catholic and a cultural reference for them is the Roman Catholic Church.”

St. Jerome was one church that experienced this sudden influx in the ‘90s and moved to expand its 350-person church in 2000 to accommodate the arrival of up to 1,500 Latinos attending Spanish Mass.

Learning to coexist

The costumes Gonzalez’s dancers were wearing this year have come a long way from when she first started making them. Her first year she sewed together a simple top and skirt for the female dancers. This year she created a red ensemble with gold sequins, the image of Guadalupe, strings of golden beads that clacked with every movement and a towering headdress of peacock feathers.

Her drum thundered through the church as the youth dancers jumped, spun and wove their way around one another.

“There were only a few mistakes,” she said with a laugh afterward as she mingled with parishioners in the dining hall where volunteers served Mexican hot chocolate and piles of Mexican sweet bread throughout the late-night service.

Teaching the Aztec dancing class has been a way for Gonzalez to connect youth with their culture, but also keep ties with her own.

“This is the heritage of my mom who passed it down to me,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. “These were the traditions of the place where she grew up. This is a way for me to help our children stay connected with their culture because without it we’ll lose it.”

Prior to the opening of its expanded space in 2005, St. Jerome only had two masses, one in English and one in Spanish, with Spanish Mass overflowing into the street. Its services have now grown to host two Spanish masses on weekends, cultural events like the Feast of Guadalupe and a Valentine’s Day fundraisers known as Noche Romantica (Romantic Night).

A shared parish, one that serves two or more demographics, is not often sought after because of the difficulties that come with trying to serve multiple populations. They often happen after demographic shifts related to jobs, immigration and childbirth rates.

But a church population is regularly evolving, and parish leaders must brace for sudden change.

“If I took a picture of my church today then in six months, one-third of the people would be new,” Ospino said. “Gone are the days you were baptized, married and died with the same church.”

The history of the Catholic Church in Idaho is peppered with moments where the church advocated for the rights of Latino immigrants. In the 1960s the church advocated for better treatment of Mexican farmworkers and in the 1980s the church was a major rallying hub to decry white supremacist violence against Latinos in south-central Idaho.

Just as church populations change in waves, so do the events that define the church. Churches at the helm of an issue will fade out of the spotlight when clergymen and parish staff pioneering this work leave for another parish. The same can be said for integration. The Irish and Italians had their own struggles when they were newcomers to American churches, a trend now affecting Latinos.

“Here it’s better,” Father Adrian Vazquez, the priest at St. Jerome, said. “I’ve worked a lot of different places and there’s places where you can really see the separation.”

There are 19 priests under the Diocese of Boise who identify as Latino. Churches in Twin Falls, Gooding, Rupert, Wendell and Buhl all have Latino priests leading the church.

‘Nothing unites us more than this’

On the second day of celebrations, worshippers huddled together in the parking lot of Cheverria’s, a Mexican restaurant on South Lincoln Avenue, some clutching Mexican hot chocolate while the dancers helped one another adjust their outfits.

Feast of Guadalupe procession

Latino parishioners participate in the Feast of Guadalupe procession to St. Jerome Catholic Church on Dec. 12. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, is said to have appeared to an indigenous man at the Hill of Tepeyac in Mexico.

When the procession to St. Jerome was set to begin four volunteers carried a display adorned with soft pink roses that surrounded small statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego recreating the story of her appearing before him. The volunteers stood one at every corner, hoisting the display onto their shoulders. The parishioners followed them toward the church led by Vazquez in the reciting of the rosary. By the time the procession reached the church, it was lashing rain, and its followers arrived at the doors of St. Jerome singing “La Guadalupana,” a traditional hymn.

“We are here in spite of rain and cold because we are united by the Virgin of Guadalupe,” Vazquez said to the overflowing crowd at the 1,200-seat church during the Spanish Mass. “Nothing unites us more than this.”

While the Mass for the Feast of Guadalupe was largely Latino, parish staff said the community still comes together at fundraising events and other church activities. The transition for St. Jerome comes much easier than in other parishes. Racial and economic disparities are flashpoints for divisions between parishioners. These issues can be more difficult for immigrants to navigate as they are also trying to assimilate into a different country.

“It’s difficult to be an immigrant,” Vazquez said. “They work long hours and there’s no time for family, the environment at school is different than what they want for their children, there’s pressure to conform, things like that. And there’s not enough tools from them to find the answers to those questions.”

Feast of Guadalupe

Father Adrian Vazquez looks to the Virgin of Guadalupe during Mass at St. Jerome Catholic Church on Dec. 12. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, is said to have appeared to an indigenous man at the Hill of Tepeyac in Mexico.

A point of tension in some parishes is that Latino parishioners tend to be low-income and don’t have the capital of some white parishioners whose families have been with and supported the church for generations.

The Feast of Guadalupe at St. Jerome Parish raised nearly $5,000. The Feast of St. Jerome, its patronal feast that is more widely supported by parishioners of all backgrounds and has sponsors, took in $28,538.96 by comparison.

The church community, however, has found a way to come together when it comes to raising money.

“Latinos are good at working, Anglos are good with money,” Vazquez said in Spanish. “It’s like ‘you find the donors, we’ll come volunteer.’ We get along because we work together.”

A sustaining force

At the same time as churches are trying to welcome a diverse group of parishioners, the Catholic Church is experiencing a sharp decline in the number of people who identify with the religion.

One in five adults, about 20%, identify as Catholic, down from 23% in 2009, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. Much of the younger parishioners propelling the church, however, are Latino immigrants.

“What we’re seeing is a population that is young and Spanish-speaking and an aging white, American middle class,” Ospino said. “The Hispanic population is booming. So the question for the church becomes how to serve them.”

The majority of Catholic Church leaders are also aging. The majority of priests and nuns are older than 60, which means they learned from a different school of thought that may not be as reflective of today’s realities.

“They were trained under a completely different church. That’s like if you’re going to work with cars and you go to school and learn how to fix a Model T,” Ospino said. “I’m sorry, but in this day and age you have to learn to work with Teslas and computers. They need to be trained to serve in a culturally diverse church.”

Though creating a welcoming environment has gone well for St. Jerome, there is still work to be done. A common problem in shared parishes is clashing ways of practicing the same religion. With the new wave of Latino parishioners came holidays not often celebrated by white parishioners and religious activities like quinceañeras, a young girl’s fifteenth birthday marking her transition to womanhood that is often celebrated with a Mass service.

“When you explain to Anglos why we do these things, that there’s a reason we do things a certain way they are more open,” Vazquez said. “People are more open here. The understanding will come with time.”

The church needs more Latinos in leadership positions to help foster that understanding, Vazquez said. A daunting task for the church now is to recruit youth from growing demographics to become a part of the clergy or community leaders. A deliberate effort to connect with Latinos in a level beyond language is necessary to creating inviting, diverse churches, Ospino said.

“There needs to be better leadership — more leaders and laypersons doing the work,” Ospino said. “This is not done with Hail Mary’s. You need to be professional cultural brokers.”

Megan Taros is a Times-News reporter and Report for America corps member covering the Magic Valley’s Hispanic community and Jerome County. You can support her work by donating to Report for America at http://bit.ly/supportRFA.

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