Amid Fears, RI's Latino Catholics Turn To Church For Solace, Support

Mar 27, 2017

After President Donald Trump promised a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, many expressed a fear of leaving their house, going to work, or shopping. But some local Catholic Churches are seeing an uptick in attendance at their Spanish language masses as Latinos turn to the church for support.

To call St. John the Baptist Church in Pawtucket anything but grand would be an understatement. The church was established in the late 1800’s for the city’s French-Canadian Catholics. Painted above a statue of the Virgin Mary are the words Mere de Dieu, or “Mother of God” in French.

But these days 90 percent of the parish is reading, singing, and praying in Spanish.

On a recent Sunday, several hundred people fill the pews. The parish is primarily Colombian, but people from about 16 Central American countries worship here. Some are undocumented. And now some are turning to the church for guidance and support, in spite of their fear of deportation, under President Trump.

“I’ve always gone to church because my mom’s always taught me to go to church but since everything happened, I come to church more,” said Sonia Gonzales, leaving mass.

Gonzalez and her brother are so-called dreamers, or DACA recipients, undocumented immigrants protected from deportation because they were brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday.

“I even come to the weekday masses because now we have to leave everything to the hands of God—we can’t do anything,” said Gonzalez.

Father Gerald Harbor, or Father Gerry as he’s known, said fears of deportation are not unfounded. He said parishioners may still remember a crackdown by immigration officials several years ago.

“A young family here that I got to know very well, they were at the registry of motor vehicles trying to renew a license that they had been able to renew in the past, but got caught that day, picked up that day, put in jail and shipped back to Colombia,” said Harbour. “Those kinds of things were happening. We’ve lost several families in that way.”

Sonia Gonzalez’ mother, who asked that her first name be omitted, said she wants to see the church provide more services for its undocumented members.

“I think the church should get involved more in for example, giving information of everything that’s happening with the laws, or support, what one should do—lots of things,” said Gonzalez.

The words 'Mere de Dieu' painted above a statue of the Virgin Mary, written for the church's original French Canadian congregants.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

That’s begun at several churches around the state. Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Central Falls, a majority Hispanic community, has organized “know your rights” workshops. At St. Joseph’s church in Newport, Father Ray Malm said a coalition of Hispanic and English-speaking parishioners are organizing to help the undocumented members of the church.

“People are talking about safe houses, in the parish,” said Malm. “If there’s a need they can go to. One of the big things is their children. They have to make plans. That’s what really enforced with them last night you have to have plans for what’s going to happen.”

He says that means organizing power of attorney and guardianship in case parents of minors are deported. But it took some time to convey the message. Malm said he saw a dip in attendance at the Spanish-language mass after President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

“They’re telling me that they’re afraid to go to the store, they’re afraid to go on the street, and trying to explain that they can’t live their life like that.”

Malm explained their fears to the English speaking population of the church, and said Hispanics received an outpouring of support.

“The following week there was a tremendous increase in the Hispanic attendance in the mass,” said Malm. “And this past Sunday night there was another increase. So I think that it’s reassuring them that they’re not alone.”

In Providence, Father Jaime Garcia has been pastor at St. Charles Borremeo Catholic church for the last 8 years. It almost shut down when the original French-Canadian community dwindled. Garcia said the church has been bolstered by the Latino community ever since.

“We have more people here in church now,” said Garcia. “The 12 o’clock mass has about 1000 people. It’s standing room only. So it’s beautiful to see how people come in the middle of their fears and their trials and tribulations. They’re always here praising and loving Jesus.”

Garcia says he tries to assuage his congregants’ fears about their future.

“We pray together, and also I recommend if they need any lawyers or any letters of recommendation, if they need to apply for their legal status here in the country, I refer them to the diocese,” said Garcia.

The Catholic Diocese of Providence has an office dedicated specifically to immigration and refugee services. It offers citizenship classes and help navigating the immigration system, including securing work permits and visas.

Ximena Conde contributed reporting to this story.