An overview of Hispanic ministry in the archdiocese

By Jill Kruse, Jeannine Pitas  and Dan Russo

For The Witness

MARSHALLTOWN — At St. Mary’s in Marshalltown, the parish in the archdio­cese with the largest Hispanic Catholic population, celebrating the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a big deal.

From 4-7 a.m. on Dec. 10, many will come together in the church for “Mañanitas,” a form of morning praise that involves songs and prayers in Spanish. Then at 11:30 a.m., there will be Mass followed by a large meal. Everyone, Hispanic or not, is invited to this annual event. It is similar to others going on at parishes around the archdiocese that have a Hispanic presence. The event demonstrates the devotion immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries have for their faith in general, and this apparition of the Blessed Mother in particular.   

On Dec. 12, the Catholic Church will celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. This marks the beginning of appearances of the Blessed Mother to St. Juan Diego in the 16th century in Mexico City. These supernatural events led to the conversion to Christianity of millions of indigenous Americans, and Our Lady’s influence continues to this day.

“Almost everyone has a Guadalupe miracle story to tell you,” said Sister Christine Feagan. “In their homes, they have the images.”

The Dominican Sister is director of Hispanic ministry at St. Mary’s and has been working there since 1999. Currently there are over 5,780 registered Hispanic Catholics in the parish, but if one takes into account unregistered members, the figure is much higher.

St. Mary’s is just one of many parishes in the archdiocese on the cutting edge of the national trend of an increasing Hispanic population in the United States Catholic Church. Aside from St. Mary’s, the other parishes with the highest registered Hispanic populations are St. Patrick’s in Tama with 827 and Immaculate Conception Parish in Cedar Rapids with 806. According to Dan Rohner, director of pastoral planning for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, the archdiocese has also just added St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Ames for the first time as a parish with a significant Hispanic population at 232 registered members. (See chart for a fuller picture of registered Hispanic Catholics of the archdiocese.) He emphasized, however, that it is hard to know exact figures, and Hispanic ministries may be serving many more people than are registered.

Sister Christine estimates about 70 percent of St. Mary’s approximately 1,700 families are Hispanic, either recent immigrants or families who have been in the area for generations. Most came from Mexico, but people from other nations are also part of the community. The Hispanic presence in Marshalltown began in the early 1990s due to the draw of employment at a local meat packing plant and has grown ever since.

Parishes with Most Registered Hispanic Catholics

Total registered Hispanic parishioners reported in July 2017: 11,048

Largest population of registered Hispanics for 2017:*

• St. Mary, Marshalltown: 5,784 (est)

• St. Patrick, Tama: 827

• Immaculate Conception, Cedar Rapids: 806

• Queen of Peace: Waterloo: 600

• St. Patrick, Dubuque: 426

• Epiphany, Mason City: 307

• St. Patrick, Hampton: 277

• St. Thomas Aquinas, Ames: 232 (106 in 2016)

• Holy Family, New Hampton: 227

Total registered Hispanic parishioners in the archdiocese by year:

2016 – 10,276

2015 – 10,096

2014 – 10,325

2013 – 8,203

2012 – 8,097

* The archdiocese relies on pastors to report these numbers. Experience has shown that Hispanic Catholics often don’t register so sometimes the pastor reports an estimated number.


“Originally, the first people that came here were single men who left their families,” said Sister Christine. “Since then, a lot of these people have brought their families. It’s been a huge demographic change in our parish.”

In order to adapt to the changes, the parish opened a Hispanic ministry office, which now employs three people, including the sister, and the parish offers three Masses each week in Spanish. Marshalltown, a city of about 28,000, has a significant Hispanic population of about 22-24 percent, with over 40 Hispanic owned businesses.

Integrating Hispanic Catholics with the existing English-speaking parishioners has not always been easy, but there has been progress, according to Sister Christine.

“It’s been a huge challenge,” she said. “I believe there’s work to be done on both sides.”

The parish comes together as a whole each year in the fall for the Festival on First and recently cooperated to raise $50,000 for much needed facilities improvements at the parish.

Sister Christine spent 15 years serving in Bolivia before returning to the U.S. Aside from providing the sacraments, the Hispanic ministry office she runs helps to provide for the material needs of people and works to foster unity in the midst of language and culture differences.

Despite recent uncertainty about immigration policy at the national level, she and the people she serves remain optimistic about the future. On her desk the sister has a sign she received around her 50th jubilee with the quote: “What a privilege it’s been to be able to spend our lives giving his love away.”

“You pray and hope good is going to happen,” she said.

Holy Family, New Hampton

Another faith community in the Archdiocese of Dubuque with a significant Hispanic population is Holy Family Parish in New Hampton, where about 10 percent of the nearly 2,200 parishioners are Hispanic.

In order to best serve the needs of its Hispanic members, Holy Family has an active Hispanic ministry program, which has been directed by parishioner Gustavo Jimenez since 2012.

“Although the Hispanic population is not so big, it is very important to help them to live their faith,” stated Jimenez.

In his role as the parish’s Hispanic ministry coordinator, Jimenez said he sees himself as “Jesus’ little donkey.”

“It is about taking Jesus to every heart, to every home, to every family, to every corner of our town, under the tender gaze of our Heavenly Mother,” he said.

Jimenez works primarily with adult members of Holy Family’s Hispanic community, paying visits to their homes and praying with them and sharing the Gospel each week. He helps Hispanic parishioners with their preparation for the sacraments of baptism and matrimony and helps with quinceañeras, the celebrations surrounding a girl’s 15th birthday.

The Hispanic ministry coordinator also facilitates small retreats and faith formation sessions, and drives parishioners to places like Des Moines or Omaha or St. Paul for immigrations issues. Holy Family Parish also offers help with food and clothes to those who are in need of assistance.

Language, Jimenez said, is a challenge for many of the Hispanic parishioners he serves.

While most Hispanic children in the parish are fluent in English, many adults are still in the process of learning the language.  But this has not prevented their participation in parish life or the wider community. Holy Family offers a Mass in Spanish once each month, as well as preparation for baptism in Spanish. The parish also offers interpretation when needed at places like school or the courthouse.

The first Hispanic families to move to New Hampton arrived in 2001. Most are from Mexico, though a few families are from Guatemala or Venezuela. No matter where they have come from, Jimenez said Holy Family Parish has welcomed with “open hearts” its Hispanic brothers and sisters.

“I have been working for the migrant people since I arrived to the United States in 2002, and I can say that I haven’t met another Catholic community like Holy Family Parish, so open and friendly with the Hispanic people,” he said.

Jimenez credits Holy Family’s priests and parish leadership through the years for making integration of all its members a priority.

Two special events are held at the parish each year that have helped to build a sense of community between Holy Family’s Hispanic and non-Hispanic members. One is the parish’s fall festival and the other is the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. Both events include Mexican food as part of the festivities.

“People love Mexican food,” Jimenez said, “and it is an opportunity for Hispanics to show thanks for everything they have received from the parish.”

Jimenez said he considers his work with the Hispanic members of the parish a blessing, and he looks forward to continuing to help them and all members of Holy Family Parish grow in their faith, saying the ultimate goal for his work with Hispanic Catholics is the same goal he has for all members of the parish — “to help them to reach holiness.”

St. Patrick/St. Raphael, Dubuque

Every year on the second Sunday of December, about 200 people from around the Dubuque area gather at St. Patrick Church, home parish of the region’s Spanish-speaking Catholic community, to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. Beginning with a rosary, the event features a presentation on the story of the Virgin Mary’s apparition to St. Juan Diego in what is today Mexico City in 1531, a Mass, various dance performances, and a large meal shared by all.

“This celebration has been getting bigger every year,” said Gabriela Vega Bauerly, who directs Hispanic ministry for the parish and has worked to plan this year’s event, held Dec. 10. “It is almost like a family reunion for people who want to come to Mass every Sunday but can’t because of the work they do. But it is open to people of all backgrounds, a big open celebration of North, Central and South America. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron of all the Americas, and for our parishioners it’s a great celebration of unity, culture, religion and family honoring a patron that many Latino/a people pray to for help and protection.”

While Hispanic ministry has been present in Dubuque at St. Patrick Parish since 1995, it has evolved significantly. According to the young Vega Bauerly, it was originally somewhat insular and also faced the burden of being almost the sole resource for Spanish-speaking newcomers to Dubuque. “One big change we’ve seen is the growth in other organizations and efforts to partner with those organizations,” she said.

Today, the Hispanic ministry works closely with Catholic Charities (whose attorneys provide free legal advice for immigrants in need); the Multicultural Family Center, which offers a wide array of multicultural programming for the Dubuque community; the Presentation Lantern Center, which offers English tutoring for adults and helps them to prepare for the U.S. citizenship examination; and the Visiting Nurses’ Association. “Our biggest connection is with Catholic Charities,” said Vega. “But all these organizations offer the community a wide range of resources. Unfortunately, there are some con artists out there who take advantage of new immigrants, especially with legal issues. We are eager to partner with reputable organizations to help those most in need.”

Within St. Patrick Church, about 85 percent come from Mexico, but others are from Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Cuba  and the Dominican Republic. “Most have been here for a long time; 15 percent have been here 10 years or fewer, and we also have some younger families coming now – many of them workers on dairy farms in the rural areas surrounding Dubuque,” said Vega. The church seeks to be a resource for them all.

Another major change is a movement toward bilingualism. Initially, the parish was a somewhat isolated Spanish-speaking community. This has changed due to the closer unity between St. Patrick Church and St. Raphael Cathedral, which are integrated as one parish and served by two bilingual priests, Msgr. Tom Toale and Father Alan Dietzenbach. “Since I started, we decided to make our bulletin bilingual, order bilingual missalettes, and use both languages at the major celebrations at both our parishes – the Feast of St. Raphael, the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Feast of St. Patrick.” Bilingualism is also included in the parishes’ Christmas and Easter celebrations.

“The goal is to make everyone feel at home in both places,” Vega explained. “We have been open to the whole community since 1995. We try to use inclusive language with no sense of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We want all the people of Dubuque to understand the immigrant’s life and walk in their shoes. There are always growing pains, but our mission is largely about finding unity in diversity.”

A History of Hispanic Ministry

The Archdiocese of Dubuque has Hispanic ministry roots that stretch back decades and are international. From 1966-86, priests and religious from the archdiocese founded St. Raphael mission parish in Cochabomba, Bolivia. Msgr. Jim Miller, the current vicar for Hispanic Ministry, served there from 1981-86. The missionary experience had a profound effect on him.

“You go with the idea that you’re going to be of service to them,” said Msgr. ­Miller. “They give so much back to you.”

As Hispanic immigrants began to come in large numbers to Iowa beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Msgr. Miller and others in the archdiocese became involved in Hispanic ministry at home. The priest served at St. Mary’s in Marshalltown from 2005-14. In 2006, he was pastor when an immigrant enforcement raid sent about 100 Mexican workers from the meat packing plant into federal custody. Many were deported.

Msgr. Miller traveled to Mexico to check on his former parishioners with a TV news crew from Des Moines.

“It was a powerful experience,” he said of the trip. “I was really touched by it.”

In 2008, the Hispanic ministers from the archdiocese were again involved in working with families in the wake of the 2008 immigration enforcement raid at the meat packing plant in Postville, which is the home of St. Bridget Parish. The raid was the largest work place enforcement operation in U.S. history and provoked national media attention. As he reflects on this year’s feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Hispanic ministry, Msgr. Miller says he looks to Mary to help chart the way forward.

“(The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is a real sign of hope in our faith,” he said. “She’s the patroness of the Americas, including North America.”


PHOTO: Members of Holy Family Parish in New Hampton perform a play telling the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 2012. Similar celebrations centered on this church feast day Dec. 12  are occurring around the archdiocese this week. (Contributed photo)