HUDDLED MASSES: The History of Our Immigrant Church

Article excerpt

Lady Liberty has seen many tempest-tossed generations set foot upon these shores. With each new wave of immigrants, the American Catholic Church has become a harbor that gets wider and deeper by the year.

ONE NIGHT IN 1967, MARCELINO RAMOS ENTERED THE United States illegally in the trunk of a car. Crammed with him as the smuggler's car crossed the border without incident from Tijuana, Mexico were his wife, Maria, his 7-year-old son, Humberto, and his 5-year-old daughter, Rosa. It is the heat that Humberto, now the assistant director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, most remembers. "I always tell people that I am a wetback, not from swimming the river but because I was wet with sweat."

The Ramos family is among those immigrants whom Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a leading authority on Hispanic ministry, classifies as "the second wave": the millions from Latin America and from the Asian Pacific region who have come to the U.S. since World War II. Though they are not the "teeming masses" who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries, they are like the millions of immigrants who, from colonial days, have revitalized the Catholic Church in this country. They arrived poor but hardworking--and filled with an indomitable faith in God and in their own possibilities.

Those qualities can be seen in the success of the 10 children of Marcelino and Maria Ramos. Sergio is a Norbertine priest; Hector, a physician; Rosa, a city corrections officer; Ricardo, an architect; Ramiro, a state corrections officer; Jaime, a doctoral candidate in economics; Estella, a psychologist; Gloria, a teacher with a master's degree from Harvard; and Lorena, still in college.

Encuentro 2000, the U.S. bishops' official Jubilee Year celebration held in July, invited the "many faces in God's house"--whites, blacks, Asians, Native Americans, and all shades in between--"to come together to cherish the histories of all our peoples and discover Christ in each other's stories, so that in solidarity we may cross into the new millennium."

The history of the Catholic Church in the United States is one of immigrant people creating a new spiritual home for themselves while seeking to maintain links to their religious traditions. It is the story of outsiders becoming insiders and then failing to welcome those who come after them, a process that repeats itself again and again with each succeeding group. It is the slow, often painful, process of coping with diversity.

Religion has always been important for the peoples of the Americas, whether they arrived 30 or 30,000 years ago. Deck wrote that the most notable feature of the Mesoamerican world was the importance given religion in every sphere of life. Native American reverence for the earth and its ecology has become an important element of modern-day theology. For Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortes, or John Calvert--the Catholic founder of the Maryland colony--planting the faith went hand-in-hand with exploration, conquest, or settlement. Missioners from various nations left a beautiful saga of dedication, bravery, sacrifice, and martyrdom.

Perhaps because of all these influences, and irrespective of country of origin, Americans take their religion more seriously than do the inhabitants of their motherlands. The Ramoses knelt down every night as a family to pray the rosary. In 1913, Japanese immigrant Leo Hatekeyama went all over Los Angeles looking for a priest who spoke Japanese to hear his Confession. Finding none, he wrote to the bishop of Japan asking permission to send his Confession by registered mail, and to receive absolution and penance by the same means. As a result, Japanese missions were begun in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Whether they came to New Mexico in 1598 or to the East Coast 200 years later, immigrants organized around their religion. Parishes were the center of religious, social, and even political activity. …

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