One Mass, Two Languages

13 Dec 2013, Posted by admin in Top Slider, No Comments. Tagged , , , , , , , ,

One Mass, Two Languages

An influx of Hispanic immigrants has prompted an East Price Hill church to alter decades of tradition in the name of inclusion.

Story by Dakota Wright; photos and video by Tyler Bell

It seems like a typical Sunday mass.

Church bells sound, welcoming parishioners into the sanctuary. An early-morning chill enters with them. They dip their hands into the holy water before making the sign of the cross and moving confidently to their seats. Father Dan steps to the front of the pulpit, and the heavy wooden doors of Holy Family Catholic Church in East Price Hill close.

“Welcome,” Father Dan says, his voice bouncing throughout the chamber, competing with the muffled wails of a crying baby.

“Bienvenido,” he continues.

This single word would have thrown off parishioners just a few months ago. But today it doesn’t faze them. With Hispanics establishing a strong presence in East Price Hill in recent years, services at Holy Family are now in spoken in both English and Spanish. The bilingual mass represents a significant change for the church, as it alters decades of tradition to welcome newcomers.

In 1990, just 113 Hispanics resided in East Price Hill, according to census data. By 2010, their population had increased nearly 10-fold. And those numbers don’t account for illegal immigrants in the area. Today, with nearly a third of East Price Hill’s residents speaking Spanish, the church is taking steps to become a more inclusive community.


“It’s an amazing thing in our society, where for a good portion of time, we separate ourselves,” says Father Len Wenke, who’s been the church’s parochial administrator for the past year. “Yet we live in a community together, and we actually share a neighborhood. We share who we are as people. And if we keep separating ourselves, that doesn’t help us become what is possible.”

If you want to know what’s possible, look no further than Holy Family’s choir. The heartbeat of the mass, it’s a mix of genders, races and ages. Choir members sing their praises in English, Spanish and a blend of the two. Some bounce babies on their laps as they sing into the microphone, stationed at the center of their small group.

A piano completes the circle, leading them through each musical number. The hands on the keys belong to Denise Luebbe-Vazquez, a Caucasian woman who speaks fluent Spanish. She gently instructs the choir in both languages, turning to her own microphone to announce the song title and page number: “Somos el cuerpo de Cristo, séis cuatro cinco. We Are the Body of Christ, six four five.”

Luebbe-Vazquez knows what it’s like to adapt to a foreign culture. After marrying her Latino husband and moving to Mexico, Luebbe-Vazquez spent 10 years learning how to survive as an immigrant. She sees her role as the Latino community liaison, giving support where there would likely be none without the church.

“I bring that experience to help people acclimate themselves to a completely foreign environment or situation, on both sides,” she says. “The English speakers feel just as uncomfortable. They want the Latinos to feel welcome, but they don’t know how to welcome them. Everybody’s uptight and nervous. I’m the person that has seen it on both sides, and I can pull them in. Language is a big part of that.”

Holy Family is the first parish to adopt a regular bilingual mass on Cincinnati's west side.

Holy Family’s first bilingual mass was in July.

A major source of comfort for immigrant families is having the opportunity to speak in their native language — even more so, while in worship. Since 2002, the Hispanic community has been worshipping in the Holy Family school auditorium across the street from the church. These meetings serve as a time for worship, council and social interaction. A subset of Catholicism called the Charismatic rite, the event typically lasts around three hours.

Differences between traditional U.S. Catholicism and the Charismatic rite kept the two groups separated. The former promotes structure and schedules, while the latter is a family event.

Parishioners began to wonder why there was a separation — why not worship in the same place, at the same time?

With no integration of the groups, parishioners were just sharing space, Father Len says. “They’re not experiencing community in the way that a faith group would like people to experience community.”

After working closely with both communities, Holy Family offered its first bilingual mass in July. The Charismatic services are still held, and the traditional mass is used as an extension of their existing worship practices.

“Over the past 25 years, everything about this neighborhood has changed,” Luebbe-Vazquez says. “I think the church offered a safe place for some people in the community — a sort of bubble — where things were the way they always were. It’s been a challenge for some people to change the way they’ve been worshipping their entire lives.”

From an aesthetic standpoint, the old church remains the same. Holy Family is a work of art, a hidden gem in Cincinnati’s crown of Catholic churches. It springs up unexpectedly in the relatively downtrodden neighborhood. New parishioners look up to the meticulously detailed ceiling in wonder.

Amidst this grandeur, the integrated service has received resounding support from its parishioners. Those who are uncomfortable with the shift still have the option of attending an English-only mass at a different time.

The Catholic church is accepting, Father Len says, and so its members must be, too. Parishioners of Holy Family must embrace immigrant families as neighbors. Their kids attend school together. They sit next to each other in church.

And when the mass ends, they shake hands, offering the sign of peace. Some say “peace” and some say “paz” as they hold their neighbors’ hands, but it doesn’t matter. Both words mean the same thing.

For the parishioners of Holy Family, it’s just a typical Sunday mass.

This story was syndicated to and published by

The church's priests and deacons have been learning Spanish.

The church wanted its Latino members to feel welcome, and that led to the integrated service.

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