Visitors to Sacred Heart Cathedral’s 9 a.m. service may be surprised to hear guitars and a youthful choir accompany parishioners in singing: “Allelu! Allelu! Allelu! Alleluia! Gloria a Dios!”
The liturgy, songs and sermon are in Spanish, and Hispanic parishioners occupy the 370 seats. Latecomers line the back wall and rear vestibule.
As Hispanic families have increasingly settled in the Raleigh area, bringing their Catholic faith, the Diocese of Raleigh, overseen by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, has grown and changed with them.
In the Catholic school’s basement hall next door, an English-speaking service occurs simultaneously. Instead of guitars, a baby grand piano and a male singer lead the hundred or so parishioners in worship. This represents a switch from the previous arrangement at this hour, in which the Hispanic Masses were held in the basement.
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The church’s rector, the Very Rev. Justin Kerber, came in June 2013 when there was only one Spanish Mass, at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
“It was jammed. It was out on the sidewalk,” Kerber said. “The whole church was filled. The people were all the way down the aisles, in the vestibule, down the front of the church onto the sidewalk, and around in the courtyard in front of the school.”
The burgeoning religious population has required priests to lead as many as 11 Masses between Saturday evening and Sunday evening to accommodate the rapidly growing congregation, which now consists of 3,000 member families.
Three of the services are in Spanish, with the latest Mass added early this summer.
“We’re maxed out. There are no other times,” said Kerber.
Catholic households up 20,000
Most families come from Mexico, said Olga Salas, coordinator for the Spanish services and a parishioner for 26 years.
In the diocese, officials estimate that the 250,000 registered families represent only half the number of all Catholics in the region.
“We feel that it is easily half a million,” Kerber said.
The number of Catholic households has increased by nearly 20,000 in two years in the diocese.
The Rev. Chesco Garcia, parochial vicar for Hispanic ministry, said that he conducts at least three Masses every weekend, between weddings and quinceañeras – a “sweet 16” type celebration for a 15-year-old Latina.
“In the past three years, I had two weddings,” Garcia said. “Now I have a wedding every week.”
In August, Kerber asked his English-speaking parishioners to consider switching spaces with their Hispanic brothers and sisters and allowing them to take the Cathedral for the 9 a.m. service.
“The overwhelming response was, ‘Father, what a beautiful idea. We should do that,’ ” Kerber said. In September, they made the switch.
“It was a very kind switch for Father Justin,” said Salas. “People handled it very well.”
Church officials said a small handful of congregants, fewer than a dozen, voted in August against the move of the 9 a.m. English-language service to the basement, citing frustration with the church's decision to accommodate more Spanish-speaking members.
More space, more families
Salas added that more families are attending the Spanish-speaking services now that there is more space in the Cathedral, whereas many families used to just attend for the children’s faith formation classes.
Kerber said that during the previous First Communion, 160 of the 210 children who participated were Hispanic.
The church has also hired bilingual staff.
Kerber said that the more recent parishioners bring family values and a religious fervor to the church with a “great devotion to the Blessed Mother.” He said that the changing demographics of Catholicism in the United States have revealed a shortage of priests to minister to the Hispanic parishioners.
Larger space coming
The Cathedral was historically the smallest in the country when it was built in 1925. A half-century ago the Cathedral represented one of the nation’s smallest Catholic populations.
Parishioner Christopher Gorski has attended Sacred Heart with family members since 1978, when there were fewer Masses and more available seats.
He is looking forward to the diocese’s new cathedral, The Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, which will cost $41 million and seat 2,000 congregants, and will include a parish school, gymnasium and offices. After the groundbreaking on Jan. 3, it is expected to be a two-year project.
“I’m looking forward to having more room,” Gorski said.