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Archives Using mission skills to offer Mass in Spanish

Sept. 28, 2022

By Deacon Kevin Mastellon
Contributing Writer

Watertown – The 2020 Census lists Hispanics as 4% of the 21st Congressional District’s population. That may not appear to be a significant percentage, but it represents about 28,000 people.

Superimpose a map of the Congressional district on a map of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, and you’ll find the diocese is a little smaller. According to the diocesan website, the Catholic population in the diocese is 71,905, 18.2% of the total population. Those who list Hispanic as their race in the diocese probably comprise about 2,000 people.

The Spanish speaking folks from Latin America and South America can be found in the Southwestern part of the United States. In the East, most of the Hispanics are from Cuba, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean Islands. Hispanics comprise 19.5% of American society according to the latest census.

It is safe to assume many Hispanics in the North Country are baptized Catholics. Almost 50% of the country’s Catholic parishioners claim to be Hispanic.

Pope Francis is from Argentina. Spanish is his native language.

One reporter covering the Papacy of Francis said of him, “By virtue of language alone, his travels to Spanish-language countries tend to bring out a more charismatic Francis, closer to the people, more spontaneous and, unbridled by language gaps or prepared texts, able to express himself more freely.

Hispanics in this diocese have a couple of opportunities to attend a Mass celebrated in Spanish which allows them to worship with others in their natural tongue. Once of those who ministers to the Spanish speaking people of the diocese is Father Robert L. Decker, pastor of St. Cecilia’s Church in Adams and the mission church of Queen of Heaven in Henderson.

Father Decker learned Spanish by immersion with a Spanish speaking family and by study. He then spent five years, 1998 to 2002, in a missionary assignment in the diocesan apostolate in Mollendo, Peru where Spanish is the native language.

The Diocese of Ogdensburg staffed a mission in the Diocese of Arequipa, Peru, for 40 years.

Founded by Father Paul Hagan and Father Roger J. Martin in 1962, the mission would over the forty years be home to 19 priests from the Ogdensburg Diocese. The missionaries established the parish of St. Martin de Pooras in 1963.

Most Reverend Gerald R. Barbarito called the last missionary, Father Stephen Rocker, home to the diocese in 2003. In the May 20 edition of the North County Catholic Bishop Barbarito wrote: “We have accomplished our mission as true missionaries. We have accompanied the people of Saint Martin de Pooras on a forty-year journey of faith to the stage where they can carry on without us. That is what missionary work is all about: to plant, to nurture and to leave.”

The missionaries who returned to this diocese, found their language skills were still in demand. Father Daniel L Chapin, who served in Peru from 1976 to 1986, found his fluency in Spanish in demand when he ministered to the migrant farm workers in Lewis County.

Fathers James W. Seymour, a Peruvian missionary from 1990 to 1998, travels from his pastoral home in Gouverneur to Lowville to say Mass in Spanish and Father Decker, who spent five years in the mission, travels from Adams to St. Anthony’s Church in Watertown once a month to celebrate Mass in Spanish.

Latinos and other Hispanics, mostly from the Fort Drum community, expressed interest in a Spanish Mass. Father Christopher J. Looby, who spoke Spanish, was in Evans Mills. Together with Father Decker and Father Chapin, the priests celebrated the Mass in Spanish each week in Black River.

Father Chapin and Father Looby moved away from the area, and Father Decker decided to reduce the frequency to monthly, now in Watertown on the third Sunday of each month.

Naturally the Hispanic parishioners started asking for Sacramental preparation in their native tongue and the reception of certain sacraments. The day before our interview, Father Decker had presided at First Communion for a number of the young people in the Hispanic congregation.

The ministry to the Hispanic community “has been a blessing” Father Decker says. “These people are so devoted and consistent in their attendance,” he said. There were 14 adults and 10 children at the Mass we attended. The lector for the Mass in September, Heide Pagan, is Puerto Rican. She has been living in Carthage and, she said, “would not miss the opportunity to attend Mass in my native tongue.”

Father Decker and the other priests who use their language skills as an extension of their work in the diocese, are happy to be able to meet the needs of those who do not find English an easy language to speak or hear.

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