Richfield church speaks language of new demographic

A Spanish language mass commences at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Richfield, where such services have been offered since April. (Sun Current photo by Andrew Wig)
A Spanish language mass commences at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Richfield, where such services have been offered since April. (Sun Current photo by Andrew Wig)

One Richfield church is trying to build a new audience in hopes its values align with the changing views of a sizeable Hispanic community.
Responding to the growing Hispanic population that makes up 18 percent of Richfield, leadership at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church started a Spanish-language service last April, offering a worship alternative for a traditionally Roman Catholic dempgraphic.
Leading the way has been one man who has made the conversion himself. Padre Neptali Rodriguez, the only dedicated Spanish-language priest for the Episcopal Church in the Twin Cities, converted from Catholicism shortly before moving from California to Minnesota five years ago.
In December, he led a service that served as a milestone for the new Spanish-language offerings at St. Nick’s. The church had its first-ever mass for The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a worship event of much religious significance in Mexico, based on the story of an appearance of the Virgin Mary outside Mexico City.
Following the formal portion of the service, Aztec dancers stomped down the church’s aisles and ceremonially honored an icon placed near the altar with burning copal incense.
With the pews packed, full of both Hispanics and the merely curious, the church had never hosted a scene like it, but the Spanish-language service at St. Nicholas has not typically been so crowded.
“It’s sort of slowly growing and building,” said Terry Houle, the church’s senior warden. He said the Spanish-language services have typically drawn anywhere between a “few” people to more than 20 worshippers.
Houle hopes to attract worshippers from a population that is overwhelmingly Catholic. “They’re really coming from the Catholic Church pretty much,” he said.
A survey released in April by Pew Research found that 62 percent of Hispanics in America are Catholic, while 19 percent are Protestant.
Also, Hispanics tends to be more religious in general, the survey found. While Hispanics claim a religious affiliation at just a slightly higher rate than the general population — 83 percent versus 80 percent — a more significant difference is found in actual church attendance. Forty-three percent of Hispanics said they attend church at least on a weekly basis, compared to 36 percent of the general population.
Those who have ventured toward Episcopalianism find comfort in many of the same trappings they know from Catholicism, and those who make the switch are lured by some of the differences, Rodriguez said.
The Episcopal Church and other alternatives to the Catholicism are viewed as more liberal, which may align with broader changes among the Hispanic population, according to Rev. Anthony Guillen, the head of the Episcopal Church’s Latino outreach effort.
“I think there is some perception that Latinos are more conservative around the issues of sex, abortion, same sex marriage, etcetera, and I would say that traditionally is true,”  said Guillen, preferring the term Latino to Hispanic, although he notes the terms are often used interchangeably.
“I think in the U.S. at least there has been a change in those postures. … The notion that Latinos are conservative is changing.”
According to the Pew survey, Hispanics are about as conservative as the general population, with  32 percent self-identifying as such, compared to 34 percent in the general population.
According to the survey, they are 31 percent moderate and 30 percent liberal, while those figures for the general population are 39 percent and 21 percent, respectively. American-born Hispanics are more liberal than their foreign-born counterparts, according to the survey.

A priest converted
A more liberal ideology was what drew Rodriguez, 33, to the Episcopal Church. A Catholic priest for about four years before converting, he found certain aspects of Catholicism bothersome.
“One of my biggest reasons was not being able to be married,” said  Rodriguez, who converted shortly  before moving to Minnesota about five years ago with his wife. The couple has a  five-year-old boy.
Some Hispanics may find their way to Episcopal Church because of divorce, which is a sin under Catholic doctrine. “Some people feel ostracized or feel judged or feel that the church does not welcome them because of their state,” Guillen said.
Others take issue with Catholicism’s stance on homosexuality, he said. The proportion of Hispanics who accept homosexuality, the Pew report says, is one percentage point higher than that of the general population, at 59 percent.
Also, “they like the fact that our priests are able to get married. They noted the presence of women in leadership at the church,” Guillen said, also citing accessibility of clergy as a factor attracting Hispanic worshippers.
By proportion, Hispanic hold similar social views to the general U.S. population in all the categories covered by the Pew survey except for abortion. Forty-three percent of Hispanics believe abortion should be legal, compared with 54 percent of the general population.
Rodriguez still has work to do in winning over Spanish-speakers, but believes his church will draw more and more worshippers from that population.
“A lot of the population we see in the church in the future will be the Hispanic community,” Rodriguez said.
He downplays the level of competition for those worshippers, instead taking a more existential view.
“There’s not a feeling like we’re competing,” he said.
“We’re all in this together.”
Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected]