By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published October 17, 2022 | En Español
ATLANTA–Cuban refugees forming Acción Católica in Atlanta following Castro’s revolution. Georgia clergy heading to Mexico for Spanish immersion. Our Lady of the Americas Mission offering five Sunday Spanish Masses, GED and English classes.
For six decades, the Archdiocese of Atlanta has opened wide the doors to Christ and welcomed Latino migrants, rich and poor alike, to provide them a spiritual home en español in Georgia.
Deacon Jorge Gonzalez arrived in 1979 in Atlanta from Miami where he led the close knit, cohesive Hispanic youth ministry based at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. In those days only IHM, the Cathedral of Christ the King and Basilica of the Sacred Heart offered Masses in Spanish. The youth ministry drew Cubans and affluent Latin American university students to the vibrant liturgy.
“Many, many of them got married and are still in Atlanta, thank God, serving the churches … then in the late 80s or early 90s the oil industry in Texas collapsed, and Mexicans began to move to Atlanta,” he said.
Deacon Gonzalez returned to Atlanta for the 55th Our Lady of Charity Mass and 60th anniversary of Hispanic ministry in September at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
“In 1980 we Cubans were 3,000, a big part of the Hispanic Church in Atlanta. Today there are some 750,000 Hispanics in the archdiocese. Instead of three Masses there are 121 Masses in Spanish every weekend,” he said. “This community is served by 66 Spanish-speaking priests. The growth of the Hispanic presence has been spectacular.”
The first Cubans arrived to Atlanta in 1960 and Bishop Hyland asked the Franciscans at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to minister to new Latin American arrivals. Among them, was Raul Trujillo. He arrived in Miami in 1962 at 22 and headed north to Atlanta with a $75 stipend. At the Shrine, he ran into a childhood friend from Cuba on the stairs and found his spiritual home with the welcoming group, Acción Católica or Catholic Action, eventually becoming its president.
“In Cuba I was involved in Catholic Action in high school. I really thought I could help,” he said.
While ministry building, Trujillo attended the 1968 procession of Martin Luther King Jr.’s casket through downtown Atlanta to honor the leader’s legacy.
“There weren’t many people waiting in line along the street to be participants but to me that was an important aspect of my life to be there,” said Trujillo.
In the 70s, Nicaraguans and Colombians increased their involvement and Father Richard Kieran led the Hispanic Apostolate from 1977-1982. The Cubans asked the Ireland native for a Spanish Cursillo.
“He said ‘OK, let’s find a priest to do that…’ Two to three months later, the same group said ‘Father Richard we got the answer, you need to learn Spanish.’ So he started learning Spanish, and he did really good,” said Trujillo.
Father Mario Vizcaino of the Southeast Pastoral Institute held training meetings in 1977 and encouraged Spanish community expansion.
“He was very instrumental,” Trujillo recalled, as ministries spread from Jonesboro to Marietta.
Before the national Encuentro III in Washington, D.C. in 1985, the archdiocese hosted a dynamic Southeast version with 200 young Hispanics. Trujillo also served as Spanish Cursillo director and in 1991 helped write the first pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry. A priority outlined was to be a missionary church that welcomed immigrants and identified with the poor and marginalized. In those days, some felt Mass should return to English, until the realization that Latinos would turn to greener evangelical church pastures.
Taking up the banner
Later Father Kieran headed to Colombia and Father José Duvan Gonzalez answered the call to lead the ministry.
“Father Richard told us of a need so big of the church in the United States that wasn’t prepared to receive the migrants … When I arrived in ’96, the 30-year-cycle of Cuban migration was ending,” he said.
Father Duvan, who now serves at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Kennesaw, said he and other priests took up the banner.
“It was our turn to open the doors to a community, dispersed like a sheep without a shepherd, knocking on the doors of the church because they were here,” he said.
In 1996, there were about six Hispanic priests for 150,000 Hispanics in the archdiocese.
“We had 18 to 20 Masses in Spanish in the diocese at that time. The majority were Cubans, Colombians and Puerto Ricans, and little by little above all in ‘96 the Mexican community increased,” said Father Duvan.
Then-director Gonzalo Saldana invited women religious from Mexico to accompany communities, including Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Refuge and Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Ecclesial movements formed like Adoración Nocturna Mexicana.
“The Hispanic ministries were born as prayer groups in the churches. The Hispanics got together alone. Thankfully some American priests, English-speaking, began to learn Spanish and helped us a lot…When the priests saw that the community persevered and was constant they would authorize the Mass in Spanish,” he said.
From 2000-2008, Father Duvan led the apostolate alongside director Jairo Martinez and Leonardo Jaramillo, offering 60 formation programs. He also visited Latin America with then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory to recruit priests, and the archdiocese began hiring more bilingual personnel.
“It’s a very beautiful transformation,” he said.
Father Duvan was also administrator of San Felipe de Jesus in Grant Park. It first held liturgies in a parking lot before Archbishop John Donoghue approved the relocation to Forrest Park. The priest now baptizes the children of the original mission members.
“This Saturday I’m going to marry someone whom I baptized in San Felipe de Jesus in Grant Park, where we got wet, and it snowed and got icy and hot and cold and we sold tacos. It’s important to attend to the community from their need. It was a very beautiful experience at Grant Park,” he said. “It is still such a big community that everyone can’t fit in.”
Father Duvan also served at St. Joseph’s in Dalton. Its most recent pastor Father Paul Williams, now on sabbatical, increased his Spanish fluency through a Mexican immersion program. St. Joseph offers five Spanish Masses every weekend and two at St. Toribio Romo Mission. At missions, immigrants celebrate their traditions and find practical services.
“The pastoral challenge in the Archdiocese of Atlanta is to go beyond celebrating a Mass to providing various services to the community,” said Father Duvan. “It’s very important to take advantage of all this popular religiosity in order to evangelize, and for this reason the missions are full every night.”
With undocumented Catholics, he believes “’this is a prophetic sign for us priests to be compassionate and merciful with the migrants whose only hope is in the church to find those who minister to them. We have to be very charitable and sensitive before the pain of undocumented migrants.”
The archdiocese continues ministry development for the ever-growing Spanish flock in Atlanta.
“Today we are about 50 priests from Latin America to attend to almost a million Hispanics. More than 700,000 are Catholic so the need continues being the same as 40 years ago,” Father Duvan said. “This Hispanic community challenges me every day to live the faithfulness to the priesthood because they live with fidelity to God and the love of God, the church and the priesthood. The selfless love, goodness, the generosity of this migrant community doesn’t have limits because they are available with time, talent and treasure.”
At 79, Cuban immigrant Trujillo still takes action with gratitude as a 50-year-member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and on the Our Lady of Charity committee.
“I get involved in things if I think I can really help in some small way,” he said.