EASTON, Md. — On a late summer evening on the Eastern Shore, five Hispanic men gather at the front of a small chapel.
The men, each holding a guitar, crowd unceremoniously into a corner near the closed piano. One man kneels at one end of the altar as he plays, his eyes never leaving the Peruvian priest.
Like their fellow parishioners, the guitarists heard about the Spanish-language Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church from someone they knew. They began showing up — some with borrowed guitars — Sunday after Sunday.
Now the circle of musicians, like the sanctuary, is full.
The massive influx of Hispanics to the Delmarva Peninsula, 90 percent to 95 percent of whom are Catholic, is showing itself in church, say officials of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, Del. The diocese, which covers the Maryland and Delaware territories of the peninsula, estimates that as many as 4,000 Hispanics attend the Spanish Masses offered by its 16 parishes.
Five years ago, about 1,500 Hispanics attended Spanish Masses at seven churches, said the Rev. Chris Posch, director of the Hispanic ministry for the diocese.
Sts. Peter and Paul began holding Mass in Spanish about five years ago, with the help of a traveling priest. Three persons came to the first service. On a recent Sunday night, about 250 Hispanic worshippers filled every pew of the chapel.
“I prefer the Spanish Mass, even though I speak good English,” said Irma Hernandez, who came to Queenstown from Bolivia 20 years ago. “It has meaning to us. Here, everyone knows everyone. Your heart is here.”
Miss Hernandez sometimes goes to an English Mass in Chestertown on Saturdays. But she doesn’t know anyone, and she feels lost, she said.
“It’s like I didn’t go to church,” when the service is over, Miss Hernandez said.
Bob Krebs, diocese spokesman, said: “It’s a dominant part of their lives to worship and to go to weekly Mass. If it’s in their native language, if the music is by their friends and the hymns are what they’re used to, it makes them feel less homesick to be able to worship the way they’re accustomed.”
The 2000 census showed the nine counties of the Eastern Shore were home to nearly 7,000 Hispanics in 2000, up from fewer than 3,000 in the 1990 census. Most observers agree those numbers underrepresent the Hispanic population, which includes illegal immigrants and seasonal workers, said Timothy Dunn, immigration scholar and sociology professor at Salisbury University.
What lures them to a place so far from home — where so few native residents speak Spanish or identify with their cultures?
“Tranquilo. Mucho trabajo,” says Ledicia Garcia, an El Salvadoran who works at an antique shop in St. Michaels. The shore is quiet, with a rural atmosphere many of the immigrants are used to. And there is plenty of work; most take jobs in construction, landscaping, in factories or on farms.
On a recent Sunday night at the Easton church, Hispanic parishioners filed into the chapel in twos and threes. Families, women with babies, elderly women and teenage boys in jeans came from all over Talbot County and neighboring counties. Some arrived on a bus from Cambridge, 16 miles away.
The congregation included a few Anglo Americans. Even though they don’t speak Spanish, they enjoy the service, said Sister Dorothy Prettyman, who runs the church’s Hispanic ministry.
Babies cry, children chatter, and the full, acoustical sound of the guitars fills the chapel. And everyone sings. Everyone. “I love that,” Sister Prettyman says.
For the immigrants, the service offers a few hours of something familiar after a week of managing in a strange, sometimes hostile world.
They look forward to seeing each other, even though some have little in common besides their faith and their language. At Sts. Peter and Paul alone, they hail from Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Argentina, Colombia and El Salvador.
“Even though we’re from different countries, we all want to be together. We still have to see each other,” Miss Hernandez said. “It’s the best day of the week.”