Latinos find it hard to find a place

  • December 20, 2007

{mosimage}TORONTO - When Latin American immigrants say Canada is a cold country they’re not talking about the weather. When Hispanics go looking for the warmth of a community that knows and understands them they often find it more readily in Pentecostal and Evangelical churches than in staid and proper Catholic parishes.

For many Latin American immigrants, a Canadian Catholic parish can seem impersonal and unwelcoming, said Dr. Manuel Gomez. Gomez was part of an unsuccessful attempt in 2004 to establish a national parish for Latin American immigrants in Peel Region.

“Sometimes going to church is not necessarily about religion,” said Nestor Hernandez, editor of Canada’s largest Spanish-language weekly newspaper, Correo Canadiense. “It’s something that they need to be in contact — they need assistance, they need help. In the case of the Christian (Protestant) churches, they do that more than the Catholics.”

“Evangelical churches have been very successful in reaching out to people — meeting some of their needs but also creating that sense of community,” said Esteban Lasso, who came to Canada in 1990. “(Immigrants) have two or three jobs, but at the end, on the weekend, they’re alone... A lot of them are terribly homesick.”

Toronto is ground zero for an enormous influx of Hispanic immigrants into Canada — a mix of economic migrants working low-skill low-wage jobs, refugees and middle class professionals. Between 2001 and 2006 the number of people claiming Spanish as their mother tongue grew 41 per cent in Canada, but those numbers were collected before a political stalemate in the United States over illegal immigration began chasing thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans to the border.

Toronto’s pastoral plan is to find ways to deliver sacraments to the new Hispanic population within existing parishes, and to help them and their children integrate into Canadian society, said Toronto Auxiliary Bishop Richard Grecco.

“That’s a growth pattern that, number one, there’s a large number, number two, they’re largely Catholic, and then number three, it’s that classic set-up where when you minister to them try to usher the second generation into the Canadian church,” Grecco told The Catholic Register.

The archdiocese of Toronto maintains one, small national parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe in the northwest corner of the city, which ministers to a largely Mexican, migrant population. The Scalabrini Fathers have also reached out to Hispanics at St. Anthony’s in Toronto and at St. Catherine of Siena in Mississauga. Twelve parishes offer Mass in Spanish.

At St. Philip Neri the parish has tried to help new immigrants by providing free advice on immigration and other legal matters, protecting them from some predatory immigration consultants active in the community.

On a national level, Novalis has for years been planning to launch a Spanish edition of Living With Christ, the monthy periodical version of the missal. It is scheduled to be available in 2009.

The focus of Catholic Hispanic ministry is not a battle for souls with storefront Protestant denominations, said Grecco. It’s a matter of helping Latin American Catholics in the same way the church in Toronto has reached out to immigrants ever since the Irish transformed the city in the 19th century.

“The phenomenon with the attraction of Evangelical churches is not just going on here,” said Grecco. “It’s also going on in South America.”

In the United States the clash between Hispanic and Anglo, post-immigrant Catholicism transformed the American church 20 years ago, said Alejandro Alegra, head of Hispanic ministry for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“It was a major turning point,” he said.

Between 1980 and 2000 the Hispanic population of America’s 100 largest cities grew an average of 145 per cent. There are about 45 million Hispanics in the United States, or 15 per cent of the population, and 72.6 per cent of them are Catholic. Sixty-four per cent of Hispanic Americans attend church regularly, according to a 2002 study for the American bishops’ conference. Today about 20 per cent of the 18,000 American parishes offer Mass in Spanish, according to Alegra.

The American church is effectively half-Spanish. What the U.S. church has learned since the 1980s is how to again become a missionary church, said Alegra.

“I need to go out and meet new immigrants where they are at,” he said. “I need to affirm them. I need to let them know that the church is there and that they’re welcome. That’s first.”

But officials at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops point out that the situation is vastly different in Canada. Even with rapid growth in recent years, in 2006 Hispanics represented just 4.7 per cent of all immigrants in Canada, and just 1.1 per cent of the Canadian population. Even if every single Hispanic in Canada was a church-going Catholic, they would represent less than three per cent of Canada’s Catholics.

On a national level Latin American immigration may seem like just one more linguistic and ethnic minority in a country that is now more than 20 per cent immigrant. But in areas where the Hispanic community is concentrated, they’re at the pointy end of Catholic mission.

In London the population of refugees from the bitter, interminable war in Colombia was once so prominent that insiders were referring to the city as “Londombia.” A second wave is now hitting the border at Windsor — Mexicans who have been living illegally in the United States seeking refuge in Canada. In addition, farms in southwest Ontario have long relied on Mexican migrant labour.

On the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe the crowd at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Toronto can barely squeeze itself into the church. Pastor Miguel Segura Blay from Spain admires the faith of his parishioners, and points out the gift of faith they bring to the Canadian church.

“The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is for the whole church, not just for Latin America.”

For many Latin American immigrants, coming to Canada is a matter of finding space for their culture, including its spiritual expression, said Lasso.

“The people who come to Canada, they make a choice. They’ve seen the experience of Hispanics in the U.S. — both positive and negative,” he said.

While the U.S. church has reached out to Hispanics, America’s political and cultural climate has meant that many Hispanic Americans experience racism and xenophobia, said Lasso. Canada at its worst — indifferent, stiff, non-committal — isn’t so bad in comparison.

“Cold climate and cold people, but they (Latin Americans) find that still, in general, society is more accepting here.”

More than anything, Latin Americans want to know that their church wants them, said Gomez.

“We live in Canadian society. We cannot remain isolated.”

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