CINCINNATI -- It seems like a typical Sunday mass.
Church bells sound, welcoming parishioners into the sanctuary. An early-morning chill enters with them. They dip their hands into the holy water before making the sign of the cross and moving to their seats. The Rev. Dan Hartnett steps to the front of the pulpit and the heavy wooden doors of Holy Family Catholic Church in East Price Hill close.
“Welcome,” the priest tells the parishioners, his voice bouncing throughout the chamber, competing with the muffled wails of a crying baby.
“Bienvenido,” he continues.
This single word would have thrown off parishioners a few months ago. Today it doesn’t faze them. With Hispanics establishing a strong presence in East Price Hill in recent years, services at Holy Family are now in spoken in both English and Spanish. The bilingual Mass represents a change for the church from decades of tradition to welcome newcomers in a new way.
In 1990, just 113 Hispanics resided in East Price Hill, according to census data. By 2010, their population had increased nearly tenfold. And those numbers don’t account for undocumented residents in the area.
Today, with nearly a third of East Price Hill’s residents speaking Spanish, the church is taking steps to become a more inclusive community.
“It’s an amazing thing in our society, where for a good portion of time, we separate ourselves,” said the Rev. Len Wenke, who’s been the parochial administrator at the church, located at 3006 W. 8th St., for the past year. “Yet we live in a community together, and we actually share a neighborhood. We share who we are as people. And if we keep separating ourselves, that doesn’t help us become what is possible.”
If you want to know what’s possible, look no further than Holy Family’s choir. The heartbeat of the Mass, it’s a mix of genders, races and ages.
Choir members sing their praises in English, Spanish and a blend of the two. Some bounce babies on their laps as they sing into the microphone, stationed at the center of their small group.
A piano completes the circle, leading them through each musical number. The hands on the keys are those of Denise Luebbe-Vazquez, a Caucasian woman who speaks fluent Spanish. She gently instructs the choir in both languages, turning to her own microphone to announce the song title and page number: “Somos el Cuerpo de Cristo, séis cuatro cinco. We Are the Body of Christ, six four five.”
Luebbe-Vazquez knows what it’s like to adapt to a foreign culture. After marrying her Latino husband and moving to Mexico, Luebbe-Vazquez spent 10 years learning how to survive as an immigrant. She sees her role as the Latino community liaison, giving support where there would likely be none without the church.
“I bring that experience to help people acclimate themselves to a completely foreign environment or situation, on both sides,” she said.
“The English speakers feel just as uncomfortable. They want the Latinos to feel welcome, but they don’t know how to welcome them. Everybody’s uptight and nervous. I’m the person that has seen it on both sides, and I can pull them in. Language is a big part of that,” she said.
A major source of comfort for immigrant families is having the opportunity to speak in their native language — even more so, while in worship. Since 2002, the Hispanic community has been worshipping in the Holy Family school auditorium across the street from the church.
These gatherings have served as a time for worship, council and social interaction. A subset of Catholicism called the Charismatic rite, the gathering typically lasts about three hours.
Differences between traditional U.S. Catholicism and the Charismatic rite kept the two groups separated. The former promotes structure and schedules, while the latter is a family event.
Parishioners began to wonder why there was a separation. Why not worship in the same place at the same time?
With no integration of the groups, parishioners were just sharing space, Wenke said.
“They’re not experiencing community in the way that a faith group would like people to experience community,” said the priest.
After working closely with both communities, Holy Family celebrated its first bilingual Mass in July. The Charismatic services are still held, and the traditional Mass is used as an extension of their existing worship practices.
“Over the past 25 years, everything about this neighborhood has changed,” Luebbe-Vazquez said. “I think the church offered a safe place for some people in the community — a sort of bubble — where things were the way they always were. It’s been a challenge for some people to change the way they’ve been worshipping their entire lives.”
From an aesthetic standpoint, the old church remains the same. Holy Family is a work of art, a hidden gem in Cincinnati’s crown of Catholic churches. It springs up unexpectedly in the older, working-class neighborhood. New parishioners look up at the meticulously detailed ceiling in wonder.
Amidst the grandeur, the integrated service
has received resounding support from most of the church’s parishioners. Those who are uncomfortable with the shift still have the option of attending an English-only Mass at a different time.
The Catholic Church is accepting, Wenke explained, and so its members must be, too. Parishioners of Holy Family must embrace immigrant families as neighbors. Their kids attend school together. They live in the same neighborhood. They sit next to each other in church.
And when the Mass ends, they shake hands, offering the sign of peace.
Some say “peace” and some say “paz” as they hold their neighbors’ hands, but it doesn’t matter. The parishioners of Holy Family know the two words mean the same thing.
Dakota Wright reported and wrote this story with the photos and video by Tyler Bell. Both are journalism students at the University of Cincinnati and members of the New Media Bureau.