April 8-14, 2004
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Asian/Spanish Apostolates Care for Immigrants’ Faith and Social Needs
In a small, crowded office in the basement of St. John the Evangelist Church on North State Street, Sister Judith Howley CSJ, provides spiritual guidance and serves and supports the Asian community of Syracuse. She responds to the needs and crises that constantly arise among the Southeast Asians who have settled in the area –– finding housing, food, medical and mental health care, legal services, counseling and more. When not providing these essential needs, Sister Judith oversees after-school tutoring and mentoring programs, academic and cultural programs, and summer programs. Sister Judith also travels to Binghamton each week to teach a religious education and Vietnamese language class.
“The Asian population started to grow slowly 25 years ago,” said Sister Judith. “Resettlement agencies began placing many Amer-Asians here after the Vietnam War. Then there was an influx of Vietnamese men who fought for the United States in the war,” she said. The Asian Apostolate was established in 1990 to respond to the growing number of Asian Catholics in the diocese. According to Sister Judith, there are 5,000 Asian Catholics in the Syracuse diocese. “The people have seen the church caring and helping them,” said Sister Judith. “We serve all those in the Asian population –– Catholics and non-Catholics alike. As a result, we have many that have converted to Catholicism. Two weeks ago, we had five baptisms,” she said.
Sister Judith said it’s very rewarding to watch those who have gone through the programs come back to volunteer. “High school and college students come back and tutor and mentor the younger kids,” said Sister Judith. She said that there are many success stories among the Asian population. “Every year we have valedictorians and salutatorians graduating from high school,” she said. Sister Judith is also excited to welcome back a volunteer from the Binghamton Catholic community who will work with the Asian Apostolate at St. John the Evangelist this summer. “Through funding from the HOPE Appeal this young man joined the FrancisCorp volunteer program and spent a year in Asia learning about his culture,” said Sister Judith. She is looking forward to having him back in Syracuse to tutor and mentor the children in the program.
Another success story Sister Judith was quick to share is the recent ordination of Thienan Tran to the transitional diaconate. Thienan and his family arrived in the U.S. in 1992 and became members of St. John the Evangelist Parish. “It was sad for me and for my family to leave Vietnam because we had to leave behind the motherland, relatives, friends and neighbors and the parishioners of St. Martin De Porres Church whom we loved so dearly,” said Deacon Tran. “It was night when we got to the Syracuse Airport. The first time in my life I saw snow coming down from the sky. It was just beautiful.” Deacon Tran explained that he and his family knew no one upon their arrival in Syracuse, not even their sponsors. “We got great support from the Asian Apostolate and from the Vietnamese community at St. John the Evangelist Church,” said Deacon Tran. “My family has been very active in service to the church.” Deacon Tran said that his desire to become a priest began while still living in Vietnam. “I felt God called me when I was the music director for the Vietnamese choirs. I was inspired greatly by the words of the songs that the Vietnamese choirs sang at the Eucharistic celebration,” he said. “When I decided to study to become a priest for the Diocese of Syracuse, everyone in my family, the priests, the sisters and the people of St. John the Evangelist were very supportive.” Deacon Tran was ordained on March 20 to the diaconate at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He continues his studies at Theological College and will be ordained a priest in June 2005.
While Sister Judith works hard to minister to over 5,000 Asian Catholics in the diocese, she finds the job rewarding. “Cultural differences can be bridged only if we can be open to each other and learn from each other,” she said. “I always say that we didn’t choose where we were going to be born. I firmly believe in order to learn a culture, you must work with the people and experience the culture. I am still learning.” Meanwhile, in the Utica area Father Luis Olguin, director of the Spanish Apostolate for the Eastern Region, ministers to close to 6,000 Hispanic people in Oneida County. This includes those who are in the U.S. illegally and imprisoned in one of the area’s four prisons. Each week, in addition to celebrating Mass at historic old St. John’s Parish in Utica on Saturday evenings, Father Luis travels to one of the jails to celebrate Mass in Spanish for those who are incarcerated. “Ninety percent of the Catholics who are in jail are Spanish speaking,” said Father Olguin.
He also celebrates holidays and holy days with his community, administers the sacraments and acts as a social worker. Through the kindness of Father John Buehler, pastor of St. John’s Parish, Father Olguin and his community are invited to use all of the facilities at St. John’s. However, Father Olguin spends much of his time on the road –– filling many roles. Father Olguin looks upon his ministry as missionary work. There is a great and diverse need among the Spanish-speaking population. “I act as an interpreter with social services, at hospitals and at the welfare agencies and at the social security office,” said Father Olguin. “I need to know the immigration laws so that I can assist people in that area.” Father Olguin also visits Hispanics who are hospitalized, in jail or have problems within the home. “This ministry is a lot of work for us. It’s much more than saying Mass.” While Father Olguin admitted that the ministry and the people can be demanding, he also said that they have a strong sense of faith and community that he finds satisfying. “Many of the Hispanic people don’t have health insurance,” said Father Olguin. “So as a community, they get together and raise money for someone who needs medical care or help paying their bills. This is a very social conscious community.”
Father Olguin explained that while the Hispanic community has language in common, there is not just one Spanish culture, there are many. “These people come from Peru, Bolivia, Equador, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico,” he said. “They are good, faithful people who care for one another. People give me all the news –– who’s coming and going, who is sick, who has a problem at home.” Father Olguin sometimes finds it difficult to meet all of their needs. Father Robert Christ, administrator of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Syracuse and diocesan director for the Spanish Apostolate, finds the same challenges. He said that the last available census completed in 2000 reported that there were 20,000 Spanish-speaking Catholics in the Diocese of Syracuse. Father Olguin thinks that’s a very conservative number. “We provide all of the services of the Catholic Church and celebrate all the feast days and holy days,” said Father Christ. “We help the Spanish-speaking people express their faith and their religious culture.” Like Father Olguin, Father Christ is very familiar with the social service agencies in the area so that he can refer those who have needs to the proper agencies.
Both priests said that the culture, music and language are different and the way ceremonies are celebrated is different. One unique custom is praying the rosary for nine days after the death of a loved one. Another custom is La Quinceanera –– a Hispanic celebration of the rite of passage into womanhood for 15-year-old girls. Father Olgin and Father Christ said that this is a very momentous occasion in the Hispanic Community. “The parents save their money for years in order to hold this celebration for their daughters,” said Father Olguin. As an Apostolate minister, Father Olguin said his mission in the Diocese of Syracuse is to reach out to the Spanish community. In order to do that, he has to re-evangelize the Spanish-speaking Catholics. “This ministry is like a little parish, but without the building,” he said.