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Hispanic ministry pioneer will return to Colombia

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From left to right, Fathers Joe Nelson, Samuel Gonzalez, and Louis  Gasparini (all linked through Hispanic ministry). (CT Photo/Jeff Unroe)
From left to right, Fathers Joe Nelson, Samuel Gonzalez, and Louis
Gasparini (all linked through Hispanic ministry). (CT Photo/Jeff Unroe)

By Mary Bertollini
For The Catholic Telegraph

Father Samuel Gonzalez had to leave his country of Colombia in 2000 because of serious threats to him from the political arena. He had worked for 32 years in the diocese of Socorro as an outspoken advocate for social justice. He assisted his brother, Father Ramon, now 86 and retired, in creating organized programs of education and leadership that have been successful in helping people find a voice in their world.

He visited relatives in Miami and tried to discern what he might do in the future. He called Margaret Singer in Cincinnati in the process. The two had worked together in the seventies when Singer was in Colombia as part of the Peace Corps. As a strong advocate for immigrants and a volunteer at Su Casa, the first Cincinnati organization to focus on their many needs, she invited him to come for a few days and see what was being done for Latinos in the area. He ended up staying 15 years, all spent in Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Father Gonzalez will go back to Colombia in May.

“I didn’t know there were immigrants in the Midwest,” Father Gonzalez said. “I thought they were in coastal cities like Miami and Houston and big cities like New York and Chicago. I was very surprised to find them in Ohio.”

He discovered that a significant number of Hispanics were working in construction through the Carpenters’ Union of Southwest Ohio. The union wanted a bilingual person to explain the ropes to workers, and the men were in need of a person they could trust.

“A visit to a number of work sites opened my eyes to just how great the need was for a priest who could speak their language and who had a sense of their cultures and customs. That’s how my ministry here began,” Father Gonzalez said.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati opened a place for worship and social services in 1998 for Hispanics at St. Charles Borromeo in Carthage. Franciscan Father Joe Nelson, who was very active at the time in outreach to immigrants, told Father Gonzalez about the center. FatherGonzalez, having visited the homes of the construction workers, knew how spread out they were over southern Ohio.

“It would have been good for the people to go to St. Charles, but distance, lack of transportation, and fear of getting caught along the way without legal documents were all big deterrents,” he said.

Father Gonzalez set to work to create centers within the archdiocese where Latinos could have religious celebrations and receive services close to home. Those who began coming to Mass started out as passive guests, grateful just to be inside church walls and attend Mass in their native language. Through the years Father Gonzalez served the archdiocese, he worked not only to get Latinos into the pews of area churches, but also to help them get into ministry.

“Mother Church wants active members, not passive,” FatherGonzalez said. “To become active, the Hispanic immigrants need mentoring, encouragement, and guidance. They need someone to accompany them, not hold their hand.”

He called on his experience in Colombia with organizing and educating prospective leaders and did his best to meet those needs, driving 2,500 miles or more per month to visit the developing centers, say Mass in Spanish, and administer the sacraments. Hispanic pastoral centers are functioning successfully today in cities throughout the archdiocese, including Cincinnati, Lebanon, Mason, Hamilton, Dayton, Springfield, Sydney, Tipp City, Bellefontaine, and New Carlisle.

“It has been a great blessing to work with Comboni Father Louis Gasparini, current director of Hispanic Ministry for the archdiocese, and the many lay Hispanic coworkers in the different communities,” Father Gonzalez said. “We have come a long way together from the day when Latinos only dreamed of having an active part in the church. Today it is happening.”

Catholic Hispanics are now participating in the archdiocesan catechetical leadership program, offered in Spanish. They are developing strategic pastoral plans so that in the future, if no priest is available, they will be able to successfully carry out their responsibilities in lay pastoral ministry. They are part of pastoral council programs. They have become a voice to offer ideas as to how cultures can share space, work and worship together, and still maintain cultural identity.

“I feel confident that, with God’s help, what we have done here for and with Catholic Latinos will continue to grow, “ Father Gonzalez said. “I have recruited someone to take my place, Fr. Fernando Ariél, also from Colombia, and I trust fully that he will take what I have done and make it better. I am grateful to the archdiocese for having given me the opportunity to serve its Hispanic population. And to all my Hispanic friends, I ask that you keep supporting one another, serve your church faithfully, and stay centered in Jesus and Mary.”

This story originally appeared in the May 2015 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.


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