Enriching the church

For Josefina Flores, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Omaha, her family’s move from Mexico to Omaha began slowly – 35 years ago a brother drawn by job opportunities in the meatpacking industry; later on, other siblings and eventually her parents.
Thirteen years ago, Flores said, she followed “to find a better life.”
Since then, St. Joseph has become a spiritual home for Flores and many of her family members, representing a rebirth for such parishes as growing numbers of Hispanic members bring new life and rich, faith-filled traditions.
The parish, originally founded to serve German immigrants, is now estimated to be 97 percent Hispanic, often filling St. Joseph Church to capacity during Spanish-language Masses. 
According to archdiocesan statistics, other parishes with an estimated 60 percent or more Latino population include St. Peter, St. Francis of Assisi and Assumption-Guadalupe, all in southeast Omaha, St. Michael in South Sioux City and Divine Mercy in Schuyler.
Flores attends Mass every Sunday, and teaches religious education to 9- and 10-year-olds. She, like many Hispanics, also shares in traditions such as celebrating the Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and All Saints and All Souls days Nov. 1 and 2.
Father William Bond, pastor of St. Joseph, said the presence of the Hispanic community has enriched the faith of the parish.
“They are more prone to wear their faith on their sleeves, and have a very public commitment to their faith,” he said.
Many have statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe in prayer corners in their homes and are committed to family prayer, he said. “And there’s a sense of intimacy in how they talk to God.” 
“There’s an emotional component to their faith that has enriched my priesthood,” Father Bond said.
Hispanic Catholics, he said, also place importance on novenas, blessings of homes and automobiles, and presentations during Mass of children 40 days old in recognition of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, and at age 3 in honor of the Blessed Virgin’s presentation in the Temple.
Although the presence of a significant Latino population in St. Joseph is obvious, precise numbers of Latino parishioners are difficult to come by.
A better measure is attendance at the parish’s three weekend Spanish Masses, Father Bond said. Since 2009, attendance has grown 63 percent, from a total of 1,000 to 1,634.
Still, some Hispanics might not always attend Mass on a weekly basis, given the cultural experience in their home countries of not having a priest available each week, but only monthly, he said. That means the number of Latino parishioners could be significantly  higher than what weekly Mass attendance indicates, Father Bond said.
According to the U.S. Census, conducted every 10 years, Nebraska’s overall Latino population grew from 1.8 percent of total population in 1980 to 9.2 percent in 2010. The Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates put Hispanics at 10.7 percent of the state’s population.
In the counties making up the Omaha archdiocese, Latino population grew from 1.6 percent to 10.4 percent of total population from 1980 to 2010, and 12 percent by 2016.
And in the Omaha area’s Douglas and Sarpy counties, the Hispanic portion of the population grew from 2.2 percent to 10.3 percent from 1980 to 2010, and stood at about 11.6 percent in 2016.
Given 2016 Census Bureau estimates, that would mean more than 85,000 Hispanics are now part of a total Douglas-Sarpy population of 734,018. Archdiocese-wide, Hispanics would number more than 119,000 out of 993,591.
Many Latinos come to Nebraska for economic opportunities, given the state’s low cost of living and low unemployment, said David Drozd, research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
And the nature of the Hispanic community’s growth has changed over the years, from primarily immigrants to established families having children, Drozd said.
“In the 1990s about three-fourths of the increase was through in-migration to the state,” he said. “By the mid-1990s, we saw births pick up, and we now see more of the population growth through natural increase.”
“Once they became established here, they began to have support networks of language and culture, with the church being one big piece of that,” Drozd said.
Many Latinos are Catholic, although the portion of that population self-identifying as Catholic has been shrinking.
According to Pew Research Center national statistics, that number decreased from 67 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2014, while the total percentage of U.S. Catholics who are Hispanic increased from 25 percent in the 1980s to 40 percent in recent studies.
Once settled, immigrants also reach out to family members and others, encouraging them to come, as well, Drozd said. “So in the 2000s, we’ve seen a lot more family members coming,” he said.
Flores’ experience echoes that trend.
“It makes things easier if you can follow other family members who are already here. We can help each other,” she said. 
Flores, who makes a living cleaning houses, said she is grateful for the life she has found in the United States.
“This country has a lot of opportunities if you want to work,” she said. “We don’t have the same opportunities in Mexico.”
And the faith of Latinos is helping build up the Catholic Church in the United States, said Deacon Gregorio Elizalde, manager of the archdiocese’s Latino Ministry Office.
“Hispanic people have a deep desire to live according to the life of Christ and are deeply devoted to family,” he said. “You can see that in the number of families attending Mass with their children.
“They are bringing a vitality and a richness to the faith of their parishes,” he said.
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