- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

Fifteen years ago, the Hispanic youth prayer group at Saint Anthony of Padua Parish, a Roman Catholic church in Falls Church, began at a nearby parish with fewer than two dozen members observing Palm Sunday, or “Domingo de Ramos,” in their native Spanish.

On Palm Sunday yesterday, the same group, known as Nueva Esperanza, or New Hope, marked its 15th anniversary at the D.C. Armory in Southeast, with a Mass attended by several bishops and more than 4,000 worshippers from across the Washington area.

“We started so Hispanics would have a place to go to church and to meet people,” said event organizer Manuel Aviles, 25, an immigrant from El Salvador.

Its annual Palm Sunday observance has become a popular event for local Hispanic worshippers over the years — one that’s too large to hold in churches, community meeting rooms or school cafeterias, Mr. Aviles said.

“This is our first year at the Armory, but it won’t be the last,” he said of the D.C. Armory, which can seat up to 10,000.

The increasing popularity of the group’s Palm Sunday observance is one of many examples of how the area’s fast-growing Hispanic population is contributing to the changing face of the local Catholic church, church leaders said yesterday.

“Our diocese has been immeasurably enriched by a vibrant and growing Hispanic presence,” Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde said yesterday.

More than half of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington’s 66 parishes in Northern Virginia offer Mass in Spanish, said the Rev. Richard A. Mullins, director of the diocese’s Office of Spanish Speaking Vocations.

“First came the Cubans, then the Nicaraguans, and then came the influx of Salvadorans — we’re trying to do what we can to help them all,” Father Mullins said.

Nearly 400,000 registered Catholics belong to the Arlington Diocese, which encompasses 21 counties in the northern and western parts of Virginia. The movement of immigrants into outlying communities such as Herndon and Reston has pushed the church’s Spanish services in new directions, Father Mullins said.

The diocese also has seen a 32 percent increase over the past decade in enrollment at its more than 17,000-student school system, even as enrollment nationwide has declined.

Soren Johnson, a spokesman for the diocese, said yesterday the increase in enrollment is “undoubtedly intertwined with our Hispanic growth.”

In the Archdiocese of Washington, church leaders said, the clergy offer 48 Masses in Spanish at 31 locations. The archdiocese includes parishes in the District and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties of Maryland.

Of the more than 560,000 Catholics in the Washington archdiocese, about 30 percent are of Hispanic descent, said Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

The Rev. Juan Puigbo, director of the Office of Hispanic Pastoral Affairs for the archdiocese, said many Hispanic immigrants turn to the church for skills and services such as English education or legal help.

“The Catholic Church is a huge resource,” he said. “We’re trying to serve these needs so they can be more a part of the American community.”

New arrivals also see the church as a way to stay connected to their past, said the Rev. Mario Dorsonville, director of the archdiocese’s Spanish Catholic Center, which provides education, medical and legal services.

“People come to this country because they want to work, but it is always a struggle. It’s not easy to leave your family behind. It’s not what they expected,” he said. “So at the end of the day, when they see a church, they don’t feel like they’re going to be rejected. They feel like they’ll have some friends. We can’t solve every problem, but they see us as a welcome home.”

The Rev. Horace H. Grinnell, pastor at Saint Anthony’s for more than a decade, said the increasing number of Hispanic immigrants in the region is only part of the reason for the growing popularity of the Nueva Esperanza prayer group.

“They’re reaching out to everybody, especially the young Latinos and the gang members,” Father Grinnell said. “It shows the power of their commitment.”

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