Loud, lively choir music fills the chapel. Parishioners at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington keep the beat, tapping on the church pews—14 of them, seven by side, though several more line the back and side walls.
The Rev. Todd Carpenter, the parish priest and celebrant, sits in a pew with the congregation of families with children in tow. One young teen sports a Pink Floyd T-shirt. Others wear jeans and shorts—but it is a Wednesday summer night, and the faithful have arrived for a Spanish-speaking Mass through an inviting green door with a bilingual sign—Capilla Aqui, Spanish for Chapel, Enter Here.
Carpenter, who wears his gray hair brushed straight back, fills his brown Franciscan robes. He looks the part—and acts that way, too, greeting parishioners, often with hugs and kisses. Mid-Mass, all the parishioners hold hands across pews and the aisle when reciting the “Our Father”—in Spanish.
St. Paul’s is a 140-year-old parish with a beautiful century-old church that has always served an immigrant population. But it was once almost entirely Irish in ethnicity, then partly Italian. Now, it’s 98 percent Latino. The transformation began in the 1960s. The first Spanish Mass was held in 1964, 50 years ago.
While National Hispanic Heritage Month runs Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, in this house of worship, or in the renovated chapel, there’s always a reason to celebrate the culture while finding a compassion that fills in gaps in the greater community’s social services.
Initially, the Spanish Mass was celebrated in the church basement. Today, there are three Spanish Masses a weekend in the main church and two in English. The chapel is for Spanish Masses on Wednesday and Saturday nights.
As Carpenter expects, about 50 Latinos arrive this Wednesday, but there’s activity every evening. On Mondays, an active church group, Legion of Mary, meets. Each Monday and Thursday, there are ESL (English as a second language) classes. Tuesday nights, a charismatic prayer group meets and brings its even louder, livelier song combined with vibrant preaching. Wednesdays after Mass in the chapel, the Puerto-Rican-rooted John XXIII lay evangelization group meets. On Thursdays, a similar Spanish-in-origin lay evangelization group, Cursillo, gathers. On Fridays, and other times throughout the week, choirs practice.
Puerto Ricans compromise 60 percent of the parish, Mexicans an increasing 30 percent and the balance is split between Dominicans, Ecuadorians and others. Almost all of Carpenter’s ministry—the sacraments, last rights, home visits, wedding preparations—are in Spanish. “Even if they’ve been here, they want (a service or sacrament) in Spanish,” he says.
A Mass in English is different. There is usually an organ, set traditional hymns and a formal tone. A Spanish Mass is full of music sans an organ, but rather with guitars and a conga drum. “There wouldn’t be much of a difference if you went to Mass in Latin America,” he says. “Here, they feel like they’re back in their home country, and it reminds them of there.”
Carpenter’s Spanish-speaking skill began in the seminary. His Franciscan order requires an internship in the final year, and his was split between Bolivia and Peru. Upon his return, his first assignment—and every one since—was in a Hispanic parish.
Carpenter, 49, has been at St. Paul’s for six years, but he also spent six years in Camden, N.J., and three in the Bronx. No Franciscan can stay beyond nine years.
“We’re going to pray so he can stay,” says Demetrio Ortega, the first Hispanic church council president at St. Paul’s.
In August, Carpenter was finally joined by another Franciscan priest, the Rev. Paul Breslin, after years of asking for help. The two lived and worked together in Camden between 1999-2002.
Ismael Prado, who like Ortega is also Puerto Rican, has worshiped at St. Paul’s since 1955—long enough to know how “rough” the transition from an English- to Spanish-speaking parish has been.
“I say rough because we weren’t so easily accepted,” he says. “As English Mass was letting out and those attending the Spanish Mass were coming in—the looks and stares weren’t pretty. Through perseverance and participation, we were able to win a lot of hearts.”
And lots of orar, Spanish for praying.
“There was a fear of the unknown,” says parishioner Damaris Hernandez. “We had to show them that we were part of the same church family. Now, we’re allowed to praise God in our own culture and natural tongue and with a music that defines us as a community. This allows us to be free. We’re not forced to fit into a certain way of praising God.”
Ortega’s face glows at the reminder of having a new pope of Latin American descent. More than Pope Francis’ Argentinian heritage, it’s his warm, humble, down-to-earth demeanor, Carpenter says. “He’s so concerned with the poor and so identifies with a working-class parish like this,” he says. “We’re in a poor neighborhood, so his outreach and compassion are impactful. It’s created a new energy—the Francis Effect.”
Carpenter often focuses homilies on Pope Francis—more than just his and church theology, but his everyday acts. A photo of Francis in a soup kitchen or a video of him stopping a caravan to get out and greet a disabled person is grist for Carpenter’s mill.
“He wants to be close to the people,” Carpenter says. “In Israel, he said he didn’t want to use the pope mobile. He said it’s like being in a sardine can. He wants to touch the people.”
“It’s the Hispanic way—touching and caring,” Prado adds.
Though it’s uncertain if Pope Francis will attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia next September, or if St. Paul’s would get a block of tickets, Carpenter says it’s just wonderful that he’d be so close to Wilmington.
“Pope Francis is saying that it’s time to reach out and not stay inside four walls,” Ortega says.
Prado says the outside community in Wilmington views St. Paul’s as an impoverished parish, but how can that be if there’s such an oasis of hope and giving? Every Monday and Wednesday, the church feeds the hungry with help from other diocesan churches and the local Knights of Columbus.
“Maybe we’re a poor parish, but we’re rich spiritually,” Ortega says. “We all work together.”
Or to have a deacon, Angel Rivera, the parish’s custodian, organize free showers, haircuts and clothing handouts for the homeless.
Upstairs in the main church, there are still red-and-white flag streamers hung for a celebration for Our Lord of Chalma, a town in Mexico. At a 10:30 a.m. Sunday Spanish Mass, the church is nearly full. On days like the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass (Dec. 12) or Easter Sunday, it’s standing room only.
Wilmington’s Latin American Community Center, a block away, wouldn’t have had its start in 1969 without volunteers from St. Paul’s.
On a Wednesday night, the parishioners are slow to depart from the chapel. Many still tap and clap. Some extend their prayers. Many are John XXIII members, who will soon meet in the rectory basement.
Despite all the comings and goings, there is acceptance among all the parishioners: “We give hugs and kisses,” Hernandez explains.