Faith Formation

‘Semillas’ growing faith of Spanish-speaking Catholics

Adult faith formation program aims to meet a need of church’s  Hispanic population

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

CEDAR RAPIDS — As he reflected on Psalm 42, Bill Mulcahey, the most recent guest lecturer at the Semillas program, asked participants for a quick translation of the English word “roller coaster”

“Rusa montaña!” answered one of the adult students; the two words literally mean “Russian mountain” in English.

Speaking in Spanish, Mulcahey, thanked the man before continuing.

“The psalm talks about the high and low parts in a person’s life,” he said.

Mulcahey then played a psalm set to music. He told each of the 11 tables in the room to write an original psalm based on the ups and downs of their own lives. About 15 minutes later, a representative of each group read the five or six verses they composed. Many talked about how they maintain their relationships with God through good times and difficult ones.

Now in its second year, Semillas (meaning “Seeds”) is an adult faith formation program for Spanish-Speaking Catholics of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. The daylong sessions meet once a month in different cities. The most recent session April 7 at a classroom on the campus of Mt. Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, continued this year’s focus on the Nicene Creed. The theme was “Creo in Dios. Quien es Dios?” (I believe in God. Who is God?) Each monthly meeting builds on the previous class. Speakers like Mulcahey or Deacon Rigoberto Real and his wife, Martha, members of Queen of Peace Parish in Waterloo, guide the students as they learn about important topics from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“We’re part of the formation leadership team (of Semillas),” said Martha Real, who served as a table leader at the April session.

“Next month we’ll be teaching a class on the topic of ‘We believe in Jesus,’” she said. “It’s been good to be able to share what we know. What inspires us is the desire of all these people to know more about their faith.”

Maria Keibach de Tama y Diácono Rigoberto Real durante ‘Semillas’ 7 de abril en Cedar Rapids. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)


The faith formation effort began in response to the desire for more adult education expressed in the parishes, according to Sister Rita Menart, PBVM, another member of the leadership team. The first class consisted of 21 people and has expanded in its second year to about 60. The growth comes amidst an increase in the Hispanic population throughout the archdiocese in recent years.

Semillas participants are originally from a variety of Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, El Salvador, ­Costa Rica and Guatamala. The students are active members of their parishes, such as Maria Keibach of St. Patrick in Tama, who teaches children preparing for their first Communion.

“I’ve been able to meet and have companionship with more people,” she said. “This program is important for the community and our church. I would recommend it to more people in my church.”

Keibach, an immigrant from Mexico who later married an American, is like many of her classmates in that she came seeking knowledge she can share with others in her parish.

“The most important thing about this course is that we learn new information about our faith,” said Roberto Mendoza of St. Mary Parish in Marshalltown.

With an estimated 5,784 registered Hispanic Catholics as of July 2017, St. Mary has the largest number of Hispanic members in the archdiocese. Not surprisingly, the parish is well represented in the program.      

People who lead the classes at Semillas are usually chosen because they are bi-lingual and bring some expertise in educating people in the Catholic faith.

When bridging the gap between the English- and Spanish-speaking ­members of the church, Mulcahey, for example, has learned to navigate both cultural and linguistic differences. During a break in the most recent Semillas class April 7, Mulcahey explained that he discovered through experience that music and story telling are important educational tools in Latin American culture when he was a dean at an Ecuadorian university for well over a decade and while working in Panama for four years.

“I used to do this in Panama,” he said. “The way to engage (students) in learning was to allow them to be able to sing and tell their own stories. I asked them their feelings about God. It was a method of learning that was really helpful.”

Mulcahey, who is married to a Panamanian, returned to the United States and served as campus ministry director at Mt. Mercy from 2002-2013. After exploring the Psalms in the morning, he spent the afternoon covering topics related to who God is and how he speaks to Latin Americans living in the United States today. Sister Rita explained that students must attend all classes and that many make sacrifices to be there each month.

“At the end of each class, the students get an assignment of sections from the catechism and reflection questions,” she said.


Participants pay a fee of $30, complete an application and commit to attend six sessions. The curriculum was developed by a formation team that includes Sister Rita, coordinator of Spanish-speakers retreats; Gustavo Jimenez, Hispanic ministry coordinator in Holy Family, New Hampton; Deacon Real, deacon and Hispanic ministry coordinator at Queen of Peace, Waterloo; Sister Christine Feagan, OP, Hispanic ministry coordinator in St. Mary, Marshalltown; and Naida Garza, Hispanic ministry coordinator in Immaculate Conception, Cedar Rapids.

(left to right) Roberto Mendoza, Silvia Martinez, Carlos Yepez and Juana Quinto are pictured at the Semillas class April 7 at Mt. Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. Also at the table, but not pictured, was René Hernandez. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)

The schedule and themes for this year’s remaining sessions are as follows:

• May 5 in Waterloo – I Believe in Jesus: Who is Jesus?

• Aug. 4 in Marshalltown – I Believe in the Holy Spirit: Who is the Holy Spirit?

• Sept. 1 in New Hampton – I Believe in the church: Who is the church?

• Oct. 6 – Retreat at St. Gabriel Church in Reinbeck.

• Nov.  3 –  If there is a weather or other problem, this is the make-up date.

Organizers are hoping to continue to expand Semillas so they can provide more educational opportunities for Spanish-speaking adults.

“This class is very important,” said Deacon Real of Waterloo. “The  Hispanic community grows each day. They are in many cities around the Archdiocese of Dubuque. They have skills to offer the church and the community.”

Registration for this year’s Semillas is closed, but if you would like more information about the program, contact Sister Rita at: 563-542-9962.


To view this article in Spanish, click here

Cover Photo: Spanish-speaking adult Catholics from many parts of the Archdiocese of Dubuque discuss the Psalms during the April meeting of the Semillas program in Cedar Rapids.

(Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)