- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

RICHMOND — For the past 18 months, the Rev. Amarilho Checon has been making a 700-mile round trip almost every month to western Henrico County.

Father Checon, 80, felt duty-bound to honor a request by a parishioner at St. Mary Catholic Church to celebrate Mass in Portuguese there once a month, he said.

That meant traveling from Mount Vernon, N.Y.

Many in the Richmond area’s Brazilian community yearned to worship in their language with familiar hymns and to attend Mass the way it is celebrated in their native country. Many of those parishioners do not speak English.

“Immigrants won’t pray in a foreign language,” Father Checon said. “You need someone who understands the language and the culture to make a bridge between the ways of the immigrant community and the local church.”

When immigrants come to a new country, their goal is to earn money for a better life, Father Checon said.

“They come here for material things. … But they forget the human part of it, which is the spiritual life,” he said.

There are no official figures on the number of Brazilians in the Richmond area, but some St. Mary parishioners estimate there are about 3,000. An average of 80 people attend the Portuguese Mass, 150 on special occasions such as Mother’s Day.

“Most of them don’t go to church unless the Mass is in Portuguese,” said churchgoer Claudia Hauari.

In appreciation, Brazilian worshippers at St. Mary pay for Father Checon’s train ticket and trip expenses, which amount to about $270.

“I love to have him here in Richmond because in my thoughts, the Brazilian community deserves a Mass in Portuguese,” Miss Hauari said.

Father Checon started working full time with Brazilian immigrants five years ago after he retired from teaching at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro.

He currently works in Mount Vernon at the Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, which has about 5,000 Brazilian members, he said. Each week, he celebrates Mass three times in English and twice in Portuguese, he said.

A Brazilian churchgoer from a previous parish in New York City, who moved to the Richmond area, asked Father Checon whether he’d be willing to come to St. Mary to celebrate Mass for the Brazilian community.

During a visit earlier this May, Father Checon said he was born in Espiritu Santo, about 300 miles from Rio de Janeiro, where he went to school.

He admired a visiting priest in Espiritu Santo and at age 10 began wishing to become one himself, he said.

“I didn’t know how to go about it, so I prayed,” he said putting his hands together in a prayerlike manner. His prayers were answered, and he was ordained a priest 48 years ago in Spain.

Father Checon said the process of getting a priest and a place for the Brazilian congregation at St. Mary has been delayed with the appointment of a new bishop and the shortage of priests in Catholic churches.

“I was hoping that by now we would have someone permanent,” he said.

One option is for Father Checon to move to St. Mary, Father Checon said. Another is for a priest from Brazil or Washington to come. ‘I like the first one,” Cristina Zamai said.

Miss Zamai, president of the Brazilian congregation at St. Mary, said Father Checon is a godsend.

“He is an exemplary person that gives us strength to move forward,” she said.

“Forward, forward,” Father Checon said in a deep voice, pumping his arms.

Miss Zamai said if a Portuguese Mass is held every Sunday, the St. Mary Brazilian community would grow and would be able to have its own church, a larger choir and prayer services.

“The community would grow stronger,” she said. “We appreciate the [St. Mary] locale they let us use, but it is only a start.”

Father Checon added in Spanish: “For a start it’s been great, but it is time to take it up an extra step.”

Every time he comes to St. Mary, Father Checon said, he wants to leave a message of hope for Brazilians.

The system may abuse many of them because they don’t have green cards or driver’s licenses, but it can’t take away their dignity, he said.

“My message is that ‘You are children of God, and you are human beings.’”

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