GILLETT — Ivonne Romo teaches in the Spanish faith formation program at St. Willebrord Parish in downtown Green Bay, but she lives 40 miles or so northwest in Oconto Falls, where she works on a local farm.
Just before Christmas, Romo was at St. John the Evangelist Church in neighboring Gillett to coordinate the “Posada” and lead a handful of colorfully costumed children in that Hispanic reenactment of the Nativity story.
She’s become involved at St. John since the church began to offer Mass in her native Spanish language three months ago.
“We didn’t have Spanish Mass in this area,” Romo explained through an interpreter, “and we want our children to continue to attend church and receive their religious education. And we want to bring ourselves closer to God, too.”
The presider of the Spanish language Mass, celebrated every third Saturday evening, is Missionary of Faith Fr. Robert Ni Ni, administrator of St. John the Evangelist and St. Michael Parish, Suring.
Fr. Ni Ni doesn’t speak Spanish.
An international priest who is a native of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Fr. Ni Ni preceded Mass Dec. 21 by welcoming people in English — not his native tongue: “We would like you to feel this church is your church, and I’m honored to serve you,” he said.
Alnilda Albizu interpreted the priest’s welcome for the Spanish-speaking families. Also an Oconto Falls resident, Albizu works for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Green Bay. She’s a native of Puerto Rico, and having lived on the U.S. mainland for 23 years, speaks English as well as Spanish. Translating is no problem, she said.
“My family moved to Wisconsin in 2013,” she explained in an email. “During these years I have worked with many families as a case manager and have gained the trust of Hispanic families in Oconto County. We often talked about our traditions, our faith and the need to worship. We only have one Spanish Mass in Coleman every first Saturday of the month. We know that some families have been gathering at each other’s houses to pray together because there’s no priest to say Mass in our language.”
With the help of Mary Armbrust, the diocese’s pastoral care and ministry coordinator, a few Spanish-speaking Catholics in the area began praying the rosary together last October at St. Anthony Church in Oconto Falls, Albizu said.
Desire for the sacraments
“Nineteen people came together for that first rosary, and after, the families wanted to connect more,” she noted. “They asked about a Spanish Mass. Some of these families are longing to receive the sacraments for themselves and for their children. We needed a church and a priest to officiate Mass. I prayed and I prayed.”
As an employee of the diocese, Albizu was delivering a Respect Life Month packet to St John the Evangelist in Gillett when her prayers were answered.
“After handing the packet to Fr. Ni Ni, I asked him, ‘How would you feel about doing a Spanish Mass?’” she said. “He laughed and replied, ‘I don’t know Spanish, but I can read Spanish.’ We immediately set a date, Oct. 19, for our first Spanish Mass.”
At Mass in December, members of the assembly proclaimed the readings and the responsorial psalm in their native Spanish. Fr. Ni Ni read the Gospel in Spanish, then, apologizing in advance for his limited Spanish pronunciation skills, read his homily in Spanish as well. Earlier, Albizu had translated it for him from English. “I do it a week ahead of time to give him time to practice,” she explained.
Using a Spanish sacramentary provided by the diocese, Fr. Ni Ni read the prayers of the liturgy, admittedly struggling at times. “You can read without understanding,” he acknowledged, “so it is tough. But I can see that people appreciate celebrating Mass in their own language. They are happy, and they embrace it.”
Many work at local farms
Although St. John the Evangelist has a summer program for migrant workers at the Seneca Foods bean processing plant in Gillett, the majority of the Spanish-speaking Catholics who attend the Spanish Masses are not migrants, but have become residents and live in the area year-round, many working on local farms.
Some of the 40-some people attending weren’t as familiar with the prayers at Mass as regular Mass attendees. Along with not having a Spanish Mass nearby, some have been attending non-Catholic worship services, Fr. Ni Ni noted. He urged people, “Don’t forget your Spanish prayers.”
Maria, who chose not to share her surname, was one of the parents who made the effort to get to the Spanish Mass, although she had to drive more than 25 miles from her home in Coleman. Carrying 11-month-old Santiago in her arms, she said, “It’s hard to attend Mass in English when you don’t understand the words.”
Before the recessional hymn — “Noche de Paz” — “Silent Night,” Fr. Ni Ni thanked parents in the pews for bringing their children to Mass.
“I miss the sound of children,” he said in English, “because in my home village, it is mostly elderly, very few young couples. I’m glad to see you came with your kids. Thank you very much. And keep coming.”
Albizu’s translation brought a round of applause for the priest.
Support from Knights of Columbus
Offering Mass in Spanish is part of an effort to build community among Spanish-speaking Catholics in Oconto County, and joining that effort with financial support has been the local Knights of Columbus chapter.
Also offering support was the diocesan Office of Divine Worship, Parish Life and Evangelization.
“The main concern of the KCs is to help our church and get this community together,” said Chris Mosconi, a member of the Gillett parish who is a past grand knight and district deputy. “We want to make people feel comfortable in our communities.”
Building that community is “a work in progress,” said Albizu.
Several groups trickled in at various times during the 6 p.m. Mass, and she said she found out it was because they had to work until six. “We may have to move our time back,” she said.
Albizu sees the nascent effort in Gillett as part of the evangelization initiative that Bishop David Ricken is encouraging across the Diocese of Green Bay, a thought affirmed by Fr. Luke Ferris, diocesan Vicar for Clergy and Pastoral Leaders.
Importance of Spanish Masses
“Masses in Spanish are important to help Spanish speakers continue to live their faith, and as a bridge for them to become part of the church in our diocese and the culture of northeastern Wisconsin,” said Fr. Ferris.
“There are nine parishes with Spanish Masses. Five are weekly and four are monthly,” he added. “Where they have been offered, there is interest. Hispanic ministry, especially forming leaders within the Hispanic community, is part of the bishop’s priority for the diocese: to call forth and form leaders who love Jesus and live his mission.”
In Gillett, getting started took a leap of faith.
“Deacon Peter Gard (diocesan international priest coordinator) and I were concerned about initiating a ministry without a whole lot of planning and support,” Albizu recalled, “We both agreed that God was leading the way and he was going to provide.”
The leap of faith was worthwhile, she added.
“I have received calls from families living in Gillett who were not practicing their faith and wanting to join us,” she said. “I have a family seeking their children ages 7, 8 and 10 to be baptized. After every Mass we gather with a meal after for almost two hours in the church fellowship hall.”
She also praised Fr. Ni Ni and the community at St. John for boldly stepping up to provide liturgies “that had been missing for the Hispanic community in this region of our diocese.”
Editor’s note: The Diocese of Green Bay is currently conducting a search for a new Hispanic and Multicultural director. Anyone interested in learning more about having a Spanish-language Mass celebrated in their parish is asked to contact Sr. Martha Escobar at [email protected] or (920) 272-8331, who will help temporarily with these questions until a new Hispanic and Multicultural director is hired.