A diverse past, present and future

St. Joseph Parish of Manchester started as a small pioneer outpost in the first half of the 1800s, a mission called St. Malachy at which the pastor from St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood held Mass for Irish Catholics who had migrated into the area to build the railroads.

Then, in 1865, after an influx of German immigrants, a parish was constituted and St. Joseph was born, near the crossroads of two dirt trails -- now Woods Mill and Manchester roads -- about 25 miles from the Cathedral by the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

Only one problem: The Irish and the Germans didn't exactly get along; for instance, they kept separate books in addition to having separate Masses. It took about a generation for that to calm down before St. Joseph settled into its existence as a small parish in a small farming community.

Fast forward to 2014, and St. Joseph is landlocked, smack-dab in the suburbia of St. Louis County, surrounded by houses, apartments and big box stores with nary a rural parcel in sight. The area population exploded in the late-1950s and early-'60s with the church and school relocating to its present site on Sulphur Springs Road. The school expanded three times, a new church was built in 1975, and the parish center opened two years ago.

St. Joseph would be one of the mega parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, in the league of cousin St. Joseph of Cottleville and Immaculate Conception of Dardenne Prairie, if several parishes hadn't been spun off of it -- Holy Family, St. Clare of Assisi, Christ Prince of Peace and part of Sacred Heart in Valley Park.

Still, it boasts about 3,200 families, which isn't too shabby, and among those are roughly 250 Spanish-speaking families who are part of the parish's vibrant Hispanic Ministry.

Consider that for a moment: After starting with two nationalities at loggerheads, St. Joseph celebrates its 150th anniversary at the vanguard of diversity in the 21st century, welcoming another culture with open arms.

Generational change

In a generation or so, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans and Asian-Americans together will outnumber European-Americans among the general population in the United States. Hispanics already comprise about 33 percent of the membership in the Catholic Church, according to a Pew Research Center Survey in 2013.

That percentage is rising, and St. Joseph in Manchester not only has a Spanish-speaking ministry in place but that ministry is thriving.

"If we are meant to evangelize, why not do this in as many languages as possible?" asked Father John O'Brien, recently appointed to be the first priest specifically assigned to St. Joseph for the Hispanic Ministry. He celebrates Misa en español every Sunday evening and handles other Sacramentos in addition to Misa en inglés. (Multi-lingual, Father O'Brien also celebrates Mass in Italian monthly at St. Ambrose on The Hill. He speaks French as well.)

"We're first Catholics before Americans; not first Americans, but first Catholics," Father O'Brien said. "This is an opportunity to appreciate the universality of the Church."

The Spanish Mass began at St. Joseph in 1999. A group had been participating in the Hispanic Ministry at St. Frances de Sales in the city but, according to community member Maria Lourdes Murillo, started "shopping around" for a new place to worship.

Murillo lived five minutes from St. Joseph with husband Antonio and children, Guadalupe and Angel, so the group approached Father Thomas Santen, the parish's new pastor.

"They asked if we could offer Mass, and I said, 'Why sure,'" said Father Santen, now in his 16th year at St. Joseph, explaining, "We had Mass at many other times; we could do it Sunday night at 7 and they said that will work."

Murillo confirmed "it was that easy" to get Father Santen onboard with Mass, but there was one caveat. Although St. Joseph had a Spanish-speaking priest in Vincentian Father Dave Nations, who had handyman skills and helped grow the community through that, the parish didn't have the resources to commit him on a regular basis for Spanish Mass. The group would have to find its own padre.

Until Father O'Brien's appointment May 1, the St. Joseph's Hispanic Ministry always filled that role with Spanish-speaking priests from the archdiocese, Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, St. Louis University and elsewhere. According to Murillo, who began working full-time for the parish three years ago, finding the priest sometimes was a scramble, but ultimately every Mass had a celebrant.

"There were so many priests that helped us," said Murillo, who called the appointment of Father O'Brien "a blessing."

St. Joseph has numerous Spanish-language ministries, with beloved Deacon Dale Follen coordinating activities since almost the beginning. In addition to the sacraments, St. Joseph has Spanish-language Parish School of Religion, Bible studies, an Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration and Quinciañeras, a Spanish-cultural celebration for teenage girls when they turn age 15.

The culture

St. Joseph's Hispanic Ministry draws people from throughout the St. Louis area, and numerous countries are represented in "the parish within a parish," as Father Santen calls it. Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and others.

"You name it; it's not like one country coming to our church," Murillo said, noting that English-speaking families sometimes attend Mass and celebrations to "expose their kids to a different language."

A primary goal of Father Santen is to integrate the cultures in the church, but in such a way that allows the Spanish-speakers to maintain their culture while adding to the overall parish culture. Spanish is taught in St. Joseph Grade School, fish tacos are a staple at Lenten fish fries, and there's a Spanish-language parish council.

It isn't like Star Trek's Borg, who tell conquests: "You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile."

"We're very conscious of making them feel a part of the parish without being absorbed by it and drowned," Father Santen said. "They have their separate identity, but it isn't, 'You're over there and we're over here.' No. No. We want to do this together."

On Sept. 7, that will be more possible, when the 7 p.m. Spanish Mass will be moved to 1 p.m. The new time not only allows Spanish-language families to celebrate Mass much earlier in the day but also provides English-speaking families the option to attend the Mass and explore another culture.

"There seems to be a real openness at St. Joseph to the Hispanic community in general, and I'd love to see more English-speaking people come to the Mass," said Father O'Brien, adding, "I would be happy to integrate more English into Mass and deliver a bilingual homily to make them feel welcome ... just to let them know the Mass is for everybody; it just happens to be in Spanish."

Hispanic Ministry/Intercultural and Interreligious Affairs
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