By Connie Berry
The Spanish Apostolate Office is on Seymour Street on the west side of Syracuse just a short drive from the chancery offices. Father Robert Chryst has his office there. He is the diocesan director of the Spanish Apostolate and shares duties in the three other regions of the diocese with Father Luis Olguin in Utica, Father Chris Ballard in the Southern Tier and Deacon Dave Sweenie in the Northern Region. Father Chryst is also pastor of St. Anthony’s Church on Syracuse’s south side. He is operating at full sail, so to speak. All of the clergy in the apostolate provide sacraments for Spanish-speaking members of their community. This means they celebrate Mass in Spanish but it also means they prepare young people for the sacraments; they perform baptisms, marriages and funerals for that community as well.
Father Chryst has been at this work since 1969 when he was first assigned to St. Lucy’s Parish. That’s when Bishop David Cunningham asked him to serve in the Spanish-speaking ministry.
The building which serves as his office used to be a transmission garage for trucks, Father Chryst explained on a recent tour. He has occupied the space since the 1970s and it is now packed with snapshots and decades of mementos including small statues of the Blessed Virgin, Jesus and various saints popular in South America, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. The building serves as a gathering place and as a source of identity for the Spanish-speaking community.
Although the numbers of the Spanish-speaking population are not as significant in Central New York as they are in New York City, Baltimore or Philadelphia, the local church still has the responsibility to serve all its members, Father Chryst explained.
“We provide a service of the church,” Father Chryst said. “We make the church available to the people.”
There is no comparison between the early ethnic churches that sprang up around the neighborhoods that make up the diocese, and the people the Spanish Apostolate serves. Those coming from Puerto Rico, Mexico and other Spanish-speaking areas did not bring native priests with them to serve their population. In fact, Father Chryst said, they likely do not have enough priests to serve in their native land.
“These are poor countries, not very developed countries,” he said. “They have a Catholic culture there. We have a secular culture here. They have something to offer us. You do not see orphanages in Puerto Rico. Why? Because people take the children in and raise them as their own. They have a great respect for family. They have great customs. Godparents are very important in Spanish and Latin cultures.”
Father Chris Ballard is a young priest serving as parochial vicar at St. James Church in Johnson City. He works at the parish and also with the Spanish Apostolate. He said he first studied Spanish in seventh grade and was inspired by a high school Spanish teacher to learn more about the culture and the people.
“I went to college in New York City and was able to use my Spanish almost every day. Classroom lessons combined with day-to-day interaction gave me an even greater love for the language,” Father Ballard wrote in an email. “By the time I got to seminary I was already fluent and it just seemed natural that I would minister in this capacity.”
Father Ballard explained the Spanish Apostolate ministry saying, “Most of the people that come to the Spanish Mass have English as a second language. Even if they completely understand English, they want to hear the Mass and pray in their mother tongue. It is just more meaningful for them to pray in the language of their heart and soul.”
Father Chryst realizes the Hispanic population of Onondaga County where he ministers may be only three or four percent of the total population, and that there is plenty of competition to fulfill their spiritual needs from Protestant churches. This actually makes the ministry more crucial.
On any given day, Father Chryst might accompany someone to court to interpret for them. He might get a call from a parish needing a Spanish speaker to help fill out annulment papers for a parishioner. He might be one of the first points of contact for someone just arriving in the community from Mexico or Puerto Rico.
Father Chryst was instrumental in forming the local Spanish Action League several years ago and he has served on its board for many years. He explained the organization is better equipped to help with some of the pressing social services needed by the Hispanic community. He met young Bea Gonzelez a few decades ago through his work at the Spanish Apostolate. She is now dean of University College at Syracuse University. Gonzelez remembered the early days with Father Chryst.
“I have known Father Chryst since he began work at St. Lucy’s and the Spanish Apostolate when I was barely a teenager. We have kept in touch these many years,” Gonzeles wrote recently while traveling. “Father is a valuable resource to the Latino community. He serves multiple generations. When someone is in need of culturally-competent counseling and services, he’s the go-to person. Father Chryst provides advocacy in many ways — from baptism to funeral Masses to our spiritual and legal needs.”
The clergy who serve bring their personal dedication to the ministry. Deacon Dave Sweenie is very involved in the immigrant population in Oswego County and offers a Eucharistic service in the absence of a priest for the Spanish population there. Father Olguin serves many Hispanics through the prison system. He also cares for those affected by HIV/AIDS. Father Ballard is as new to the ministry as Father Chryst is experienced, and he looks forward to continuing to minister to Spanish-speaking members of his community.
For more information about the diocese’s Spanish Apostolate, call Father Robert Chryst at (315) 422-9390 or (315) 475-4114.
This ministry is funded by gifts to the HOPE Appeal. The HOPE Appeal is the annual campaign that supports the spiritual, pastoral, educational and physical needs of the people of the Diocese of Syracuse on behalf of all parishes. For more information, contact the HOPE Appeal office at (315) 472-0203.