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| June 3, 2015 | 0 Comments

Influx of new parishioners proves evangelization is more than a word
at St. Leonard of Port Maurice

Children enter the church of St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Minneapolis May 3 to receive first Communion. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

Children enter the church of St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Minneapolis May 3 to receive first Communion. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

A church in the Bryant neighborhood of Minneapolis that was established in 1940 to serve black Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has seen the number of Latino parishioners soar: from four to 65 families in just one year.

And it all began with an ice cream social ­— which was followed by dinners, games and community prayer. The events opened the door to an influx of immigrants, and longtime parishioners embraced the growing pains of a changing church family to help them have a spiritual home.

Face of evangelization

Last June, a program at the St. Paul Seminary, Evangelization In Action, brought five seminarians to St. Leonard of Port Maurice for six weeks. Sister Charlotte Berres, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, and Father Allen Kuss, who both work in pastoral formation at the seminary, devised a plan for the parish’s outreach with pastor Father Steve LaCanne, who wanted to welcome neighbors to the church. As part of the plan, parishioners hosted events four nights a week. Wednesday evenings were spent praying the rosary at the church’s grotto.

“Every week, there was something outdoors that was open to everyone,” said Jeanette Sullivan, a 30-year parishioner who volunteers leading the parish’s faith formation program.

Parishioners joined seminarians, going two-by-two knocking on doors to welcome Spanish-speaking neighbors and others to parish events. Parishioners and native Spanish speakers Eric Cortes and his wife, Susana, were instrumental in breaking the language barrier.

It was evangelization that Father LaCanne said every parish can and should do.

“Evangelization is reaching out to the neighborhood,” he said. “Every parish can be doing evangelizing, and it’s not that complicated. . . . We have to get out of our boxes and realize we have good news to share.”

Nic Feddema was a first-year seminarian last summer when serving at St. Leonard through EIA.

“It turned out to be a really good program. We met a lot of people who never had contact with the Church,” he said, adding that in going door-to-door, the groups learned many people didn’t know there was a Catholic parish nearby.

The parish made registration forms available at the events. Seminarians also handed out fliers for Risen Christ Catholic School in Minneapolis.

Wednesday Mass attracted many from the Latino community who attended the other weekly events. But some started coming for more.

Sullivan, who also helps maintain the parish’s records, said during the last year within its Latino community, 10 adults came into the Church through baptism and confirmation, about 30 second-through-10th-grade students and one adult received first Communion, and three babies were baptized.

“The purpose was to reach out and to listen to people’s faith stories, to listen to their needs and to offer prayer and support and an invitation to come to St. Leonard’s for one of these events, or to come join us at Sunday worship,” said Father LaCanne, adding that the seminarians, Sister Charlotte and Father Kuss ignited parishioners’ passion for the faith and vice versa.

“But then the lay members were stirred up, and we got all excited,” he said. “This is a magnet parish [for Latinos] because of the neighborhood. It’s full of wonderful families and individuals who are seeking faith. There’s so much opportunity to evangelize.”

Jeanette Sullivan, center, talks with Eric Cortes, right, and his wife, Susana Jimenez Sandoval, in the grotto at St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Minneapolis. At left is Arlene, one of the couple’s three children. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Jeanette Sullivan, center, talks with Eric Cortes, right, and his wife, Susana Jimenez Sandoval, in the grotto at St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Minneapolis. At left is Arlene, one of the couple’s three children. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Faithful adjustments

Upon the seminarians’ departure from St. Leonard in the fall, the parish faced a challenge, but one that volunteers were happy to accept: with various considerations, finding ways to catechize and prepare its new members for the sacraments. Since some of the children didn’t even know the Sign of the Cross, it was back to basics. Father LaCanne and Sister Charlotte said it was the parish’s dedicated, longtime volunteers who led the charge.

“Lay involvement has to be bedrock to evangelization,” Father LaCanne said. “It’s not just the priest’s job. And it can’t be a staff job. It’s gotta be everybody’s [job].”

Sullivan coordinated the faith formation classes while working a separate job.

Father Steve LaCanne, pastor of  St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Minneapolis, distributes the Eucharist during first Communion May 3.  Jim Bovin/For the  Catholic Spirit

Father Steve LaCanne, pastor of St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Minneapolis, distributes the Eucharist during first Communion May 3. Jim Bovin/For the Catholic Spirit

“I hardly had time to think,” she said.

Once she collected forms from new parishioners, she realized a “yes” response to a question asking whether they had received a particular sacrament sometimes meant instead, “yes, I would like to receive this sacrament.” Realizing how few knew English, they had forms translated to Spanish. She then determined how many teachers they needed, how many books to get and where they would have class.

“Everything was a surprise to us. We learned to be flexible and to adapt. And a lot of the Latinos have adapted,” Father LaCanne said. “Integration means everybody adapts differently, but for the sake of the body of Christ.”

Sister Charlotte, who continues to help teach at the parish, said what was remarkable was how the 75-year-old parish accommodated its new members in a short period of time. Although she admitted adapting could be a hassle, ultimately, it was a “beautiful lesson.”

During Wednesday night sessions of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Sister Charlotte based instruction on the mysteries of the rosary. Videos in Spanish and pictures of the scenes aided her teaching. With instruction for adults came providing activities for the children who accompanied their parents to classes. But that didn’t occur without difficulties, including discipline issues resulting from varying parenting styles.

Being Latino, Cortes was tasked with addressing those issues. He said many of the Latino adults thought coming to church was like going to the park, and had to learn to use reverence and respect in the church.

One of the longtime parishioners came to Sister Charlotte after a funeral and told her how the Latinos never picked up after themselves after using Church facilities. Sister Charlotte discovered that the Latino women didn’t understand the post-Mass announcement about the funeral. Seeking a remedy, she asked some of the Latino women to help serve after funerals.

“They did the next week, and later, that same parishioner told me how helpful the women were,” Sister Charlotte said.

Father LaCanne now offers prayers in Spanish, and has a Spanish reading and song the second Sunday of the month. Wednesday evening Masses are celebrated mostly in Spanish. He learned that Latinos didn’t necessarily want a separate Spanish Mass because hearing English was helping them learn it. While he admits his Spanish is limited — not enough to preach a homily in it — “it all works because they see I’m trying, and we see they’re trying.” The parish now has missalettes in Spanish and English.

“It is a challenge for the parish because the majority of our members are older, over 50,” he said. “They love the families and love to see the children, but with their hearing aids, they’re not sure if I’m speaking Spanish or English,” he added in jest.

Sullivan said in addition to the 65 Latino households registered at the parish, the ethnic breakdown is about 20 black households and 80-90 white households. Many parish families have been there for 15 years or more.

“The spirit is alive and well,” Father LaCanne said. “And when you’re following the invitation of the Gospel, especially as preached by Pope Francis to reach out, anything is possible.”

Cortes said he sees the good in the work the parishioners are doing to bring others to the Church.

“There will always be issues, but something good and beautiful happened,” he said. “It made me feel good to serve the Lord.”

New parishioners bring immigrant experience to faith community

St. Leonard of Port Maurice parishioner Eric Cortes, who emigrated from Mexico in 1999, explained how some people who have since immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico came from small towns without a church. Many didn’t have Bibles. Still others might have only received a second-grade education and may not read Spanish well.

Most of the people who became parishioners of the Minneapolis church in the last year are Catholic, but “they were away from the Church. They concentrate on work and kids, and they forget about the faith,” Cortes said. “So when we invite people to come to church, we tell them about God, how important it is to be in church, that God loves them. Don’t forget about God.”

In all of the parish’s efforts to reach more Latinos, Cortes credits his wife, Susana, as being “the ear of God.”

StLeonardbook“Everyone talks to her about their problems,” he said. “She tells them they’re not alone. God is with us. Come to church.” She also tells them how important it is, especially for children, to receive the sacraments.

Among the neighborhood’s Latino community, Cortes has seen many family issues improve since attending Mass and other events at the parish. Ultimately, families are happier because parents are communicating better, and children aren’t reflecting tension from home. Cortes said it’s the parish’s teaching and preaching about how love and Mary are important in families that entice the new members to keep returning for spiritual nourishment.

“Now they know about Jesus’ life and Mary’s life, [and] how they suffered. And the lives like we’re living right now — we live suffering,” Cortes said. “That’s why people keep coming to church, to ask God for help and strength, and the grace of our Lord to keep going. . . . They don’t have that peace in their hearts until they come here. Now they come here and know the love of God. Their minds are different.”

Father Steve LaCanne, St. Leonard’s pastor, said because Mexican families are coming to the U.S. simply to survive, they don’t have time to learn. And with many being undocumented, they have to keep moving. Mass isn’t always feasible when many work several jobs, often in restaurants and on Sundays.

Cortes said fear is a roadblock even for the sacraments since marriage requires obtaining a license.

“It’s apparent to me that I don’t know enough about the sufferings of our undocumented Latinos,” Father LaCanne said. “But most of the Anglo Church — we don’t have a clue about these issues. And if we’re really going to be Catholic — that means universally welcoming — we need to learn a lot more about our suffering members. They’re right here. . . . All we have to do is let them in, let them teach us their story, [and] we can help teach the Gospel story.

“We’ve had to become more uncomfortable,” he continued. “We have forgotten as a country how to be an immigrant, and [are] judging who does and does not belong to the Church. We’ve got to keep moving. We’re a white Church in a rut. People in our Church need to hear the stories of our Latino friends, because these are great stories of suffering and faith. If we’re pro-family and pro-life, which, we as a Church we proclaim to be, [then] we really need to be reaching out — every parish — to reach out to our Latino brothers and sisters and welcome them in whatever way we possibly can because this is the mercy of Christ.”

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