The Rev. Joachim Studwell had a congregation that didn’t have a church. So he took the church to them.
A dozen years ago, a small but growing group of Hispanic people, mainly living in Washington County and working on farms there, wanted to attend Roman Catholic Mass. They, of course, could attend services at many churches in the region, but those Masses were in English and most of the congregants were conversive – and more comfortable – with Spanish.
The majority were from Mexico and devoted to their faith, and were among the initial wave of Hispanic people to move here. It was a small wave compared with the one that is occurring today, as more relocate, work and become part of the fabric of the local community. Census figures from 2000 to 2010 show a 102 percent increase in the Hispanic population in Washington County and a 30 percent rise in Greene County because of the need for agricultural workers, the attraction of Marcellus Shale jobs and the opportunity to launch a business.
But back in 2000, the initial parishioners wanted their old-time religion – Masses in Spanish – and appealed to the Pittsburgh Diocese, which went to Studwell, who was fairly new to the region.
“We began the conversation about visiting different people’s homes,” he said. “This was around 2000. We began with Masses once a month. The church literally came into their homes.”
That worked ... for a while. “The community seemed interested in having Mass more frequently and began looking into one place to go,” Studwell said.
About three years later, the Hispanic people found a place to go, and to stay.
“I took them in,” said the Rev. George T. DeVille, the then and now administrator of Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church, a cozy, tidy house of worship on Muse-Bishop Road in Cecil Township. “I took them in when other parishes didn’t want them or whatever.”
“Then” was May 2003, when the initial Spanish-speaking service was conducted by Studwell, a month before he was reassigned out of state.
“The first event was a baptism,” DeVille recalled.
That baptism gave birth to a weekly tradition at Holy Rosary that endures to today. The Spanish Mass is conducted at 2 p.m. every Sunday. It was initially offered at 6 p.m.
Only one other church in the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese – St. Hyacinth in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh – offers a service in that language.
About 75 to 100 people attend the Spanish Mass at Holy Rosary, DeVille said, adding that the number is higher during the growing season. Parishioners who have permanent residence status live here year-round; those who don’t work here for nine months and return to their native country for the other three. The congregation will likely be smaller the next 90 days or so.
Although Marcellus Shale job opportunities have drawn out-of-staters to the region, including Hispanic people, DeVille said he is “not noticing gas workers at this Mass. They may be moving here, but they’re not coming to church.”
The Rev. Robert E. McCreary is the latest in a line of priests to lead the Mass. He commutes from St. Fidelis Friary in Beaver County every Sunday to speak a language he learned on his own as an adult.
“I’ve never taken a lesson in Spanish,” he said. “I learned the language by talking to the people.”
This was in Puerto Rico, where McCreary served from 1965 to 1987. He also diligently wrote Spanish words and their translations on index cards, and eventually mastered the new language. He handles the Spanish Mass deftly, seamlessly, and is popular with congregants.
“I really like the Masses,” said Mariana Munoz of Canonsburg, who with her husband, Jose, has been attending them since they were conducted in homes. Both were born and raised in Mexico.
She said her spouse is in the choir. “He doesn’t do well, but he tries.”
Erenia Karamcheti likewise started attending the Masses in homes and moved on to Holy Rosary. She still goes every Sunday but to teach catechism to children during Mass time.
“Every Sunday, Father sends me an email, ‘I hope you are coming because we need you.’”
Karamcheti, 35, was born and raised in Nicaragua, earned bachelor’s and law degrees in Honduras, and spoke only Spanish in the late 1990s when she met Adi Karamcheti of Washington, a former Immaculate Conception High School student working for the Peace Corps. They were wed in 2000 and moved to his hometown that year. She learned English and is now a translator for both languages.
McCreary enjoys his Sunday afternoons, conducting Mass and interacting with members of the congregation.
“Parishioners come up to me,” he said. “Someone asked me to bless his car and I did. I took holy water. I’ve said Mass for a man who died in Mexico.
“Most of the people are from Mexico, a few from Chile, Bolivia. They are hard-working, super people.”
Studwell, now working part time at Cardinal Stritch University outside Milwaukee, agrees. He said the Hispanic population in Washington County was smallish in 2003. “Several families came from Canonsburg and Meadow Lands,” he said. “Almost everybody was in agricultural work. A lot of the people came from the same area of Mexico. If they were not related to one another, they came from the same region.”
DeVille said the Spanish Mass attracted only about 25 to 40 followers during the early years. Occasionally, he directs the Spanish Mass despite a lighter grasp of the language. “Every once in a while, I try it,” he said. “They say God hears all dialects.”
Special events are incorporated in some Masses. “You should be here for a feast or baptism,” DeVille said. “When a girl turns 16, the celebration is big. Families spend a lot of money on that.”
The Nov. 4 ceremony included an All Souls memorial, shortly after All Souls Day. Parishioners set up a display of favorite items of departed love ones near the altar.
“There’s a bottle of whiskey on that table,” DeVille said, chortling.
A toast to the Spanish Mass.