Latino Influx into The Episcopal Church in the U.S.

More Latinos Convert from Catholics to Protestants; the Latin Wave in the Anglican Church

  • Staff Writer – ‘The Latino Post’
  • Nov 20, 2013 12:02 AM EST
Virgin of Guadalupe

The Virgin of Guadalupe stands ready to hear special prayers within the sanctuary of Christ Episcopal Church in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood. The appearance of the Virgin in Episcopal churches is a result of an influx of Latinos into the historically Anglo faith. (Photo : David Wilfong)

You can’t get much more “Anglo” than the Anglican Communion, known in the United States as the “Episcopal Church.” But in border areas like Texas, this church is starting to show the effects of an influx of Hispanics into its congregations. Long associated with attending Roman Catholic churches, the Hispanic Episcopalians reflect a growing trend of Latinos in Protestant churches across the U.S.

Episcopalians are not known to be quite as adoring of the Virgin Mary as the Roman Catholics; but in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, in her trademarked green cloak, is prominently displayed in the front of St. Matthew’s Cathedral. It was installed during a special bilingual ceremony in 2003.

The Virgin is a symbol that the Latino community has carried with it, a part of their tradition that the former Catholics have brought with them into this faith that is closely related to the one they’ve left behind.

“Data on our Hispanic congregations is difficult to pinpoint simply because most of them are part of an Anglo congregation and the numbers are usually combined,” said Rev. Paul Lambert, Bishop Suffragan for the Diocese of Dallas to The Latino Post. “We are seeing a trend however, for more independence by the Hispanic congregations and we probably should encourage them to keep their membership numbers separate from Anglos. Theologically this is not productive since we all are one in Christ and there is no, as Paul says, ‘slave, nor free,’ and in this case no Spanish or Caucasian.”

According to Lambert, there are six Spanish-speaking congregations in the Diocese of Dallas that constitute an average Sunday attendance of 1,170. In other words, it is roughly 10 percent of the Sunday attendance for the entire diocese. The Diocese of Dallas spends $460,000 per year on its Hispanic Ministries, 14 percent of the total annual budget.

“The Diocese of Dallas experienced the first migration of Hispanics in the 1950s,” Lambert said. “The ministry to the Hispanics became more intentional in the late 1970s when we called a Canon for Hispanic Ministry who was assigned to the ‘Catedral de San Mateo.’ This ministry has since expanded rapidly.

“The first Hispanic congregation was/is Holy Family Episcopal Church, McKinney, Texas established in 1952. It also became the sight of Holy Family School. The school is still operating to this day.”

While many churches have seen the arrival of Latino members over decades, Christ Episcopal Church, chartered in 1890 in the historic Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff, is set to welcome its first Latino rector next Saturday.

Rev. Fabian Villalobos is originally from Bogota, Colombia, and is originally a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Like many of his congregants (the Spanish-speaking congregation is now the largest in the parish), he too migrated to the Episcopal Church after coming to the United States.

(Photo: David Wilfong) Rev. Fabian Villalobos greets parishioners at Chirst Episcopal Church in Oak Cliff. Villalobos will be the first Latino rector of the Anglican church which was founded in 1890.

(Photo: David Wilfong) Rev. Fabian Villalobos greets parishioners at Chirst Episcopal Church in Oak Cliff. Villalobos will be the first Latino rector of the Anglican church which was founded in 1890.

“It was a very difficult process,” Villalobos said of leaving the Catholic faith and joining the Episcopal ranks. He comes from a tradition of believing that there is no salvation outside the Catholic faith.

“I was happy with my ministry, but I was not happy with the disciplinary side and the theology,” he says. “I was not happy with the fact that the Canon law was more important than the gospel. I could not be the priest that they wanted me to be.”

Villalobos traveled from his native Colombia to Italy trying to find a place to fit into the religious ministry he had grown up loving. Political and personal differences within the ranks of the clergy led him to look elsewhere. It was during this time in Italy when he started meeting with people from the Anglican Communion.

“The Eucharist is very important to me,” Villalobos said. “The Episcopal Church is the closest communion of faith to my traditions outside the Catholic Church. The Russian churches and the Ukrainian churches have the Eucharist, but they are not my culture.”

Coming to the United States was a profound experience for Villalobos, who said seeing all the cars parked outside various types of churches had a big impact on him. He also met his now-wife, Dee Ann. Catholic priests are prohibited from marrying. The Episcopal Church holds no such restrictions over its clergy. He began asking himself if this growing relationship was “God working his way in my life.”

The second time he came to the United States, he began the process of becoming an Episcopal priest.

“It was a little different for me because I was already a Catholic priest,” he explained. “They don’t ordain you, they receive you. They recognize the training you had.”

Villalobos, who began a journey to become a Catholic priest in Colombia in 1993, became an Episcopal priest in Texas in 2012. On Nov. 23, he will officially take over as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Oak Cliff, the first Latino to hold that position.

Coming to the United States, with its many active Christian denominations, is something he sees as a changing point for many of his Latino congregants who also began their religious lives in the Roman Catholic faith.

“When they come here they have the opportunity to change,” Villalobos said. “They open their eyes and see that you can be a Christian and you don’t have to be a Catholic.”

He also sees location as a prime draw for Hispanics to his church. He cites the (generally) smaller congregations in the Episcopal Church as another advantage.

“We know them by name,” Villalobos said. “In the Catholic church they have hundreds.”

He admits a change in mentality is sometimes necessary for parishioners who come from the very strict doctrines preached by the Catholic Church back home in Latin America.

“We are a very open church,” Villalobos said. “Sometimes people will say, ‘You have a gay bishop?’ And we have to say ‘yes we do.’ We openly accept gay people. Even for women in the ministry, sometimes you look and see women in the clergy and they are used to the priest always being a man. Initially it causes questions, but eventually you are accepting of it.”

Christ Episcopal Church held its first Spanish-language service in 1996. Eventually, a small statue of the green-clad Virgin of Guadalupe took her place in a small prayer corner to the right of the main sanctuary. Next week, the first Latino rector of the church will take his place as head of the church in a special ceremony presided over by the Bishop of the Diocese of Dallas.

________________________________________________________________

One so often hears of the few Anglo-Catholics who, because of the introduction of – for instance – women priests and bishops in the Anglican Church, have moved across to either the Ordinariates or the Roman Catholic Church itself; but only rarely do we hear of Roman Catholics, including clergy, who journey in the other direction. Here is one such story. 

“It was a very difficult process,” Villalobos said of leaving the Catholic faith and joining the Episcopal ranks. He comes from a tradition of believing that there is no salvation outside the Catholic faith. “I was happy with my ministry, but I was not happy with the disciplinary side and the theology,” he says. “I was not happy with the fact that the Canon law was more important than the gospel. I could not be the priest that they wanted me to be.”

Almost inevitably – especially in the case where immigrants to the USA from Latino countries are concerned – there are certain faith customs that they are reluctant to leave behind when they integrate into their host Episcopal congregations. One of these traditions is respect for the Mother of Christ. ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ is one of the evocations of Mary in the hearts and minds of many Latinos, so that it should not be too surprising that in Episcopal churches where Our Lady is given due respect, they should find themselves at home. And, of course, there are other theological reasons why Latinos should find Episcopal Churches more accommodating to their Christian sensibilities than the U.S. equivalent of their own former faith community. Welcome, thrice welcome!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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2 Responses to Latino Influx into The Episcopal Church in the U.S.

  1. A joyful posting.
    Out of season, but one says ” Joy to thee O Queen of Heaven” !!!
    Yours in Christ and Mary

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