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Oregon Latinos Leaving the Catholic Church

mount angel seminary

Credit mt. angel seminary

This Christmas, Catholic churches in Oregon will likely be seeing a decline in the number of Latino parishioners.   A new Pew Research Center study shows that Latinos are increasingly leaving the Catholic church with a quarter of the Latinos in the U.S. saying they are ex-Catholics.

(Sound of church bells)

At Mount Angel seminary, there's been a sustained effort to recruit students from Latin American countries.  Still, while more than 50-percent of Catholics in Oregon are Latinos, fewer than 10-percent of priests are:

"I think we've been falling short."

Archdiocese spokesman Todd Cooper says simply not having enough Spanish masses is keeping Latinos away. Of the one-quarter of Oregon Latinos who are formerCatholics, almost half are now unchurched. Father Jim Coleman at St. Luke's in Woodburn says that reflects how the nation is moving away from religion:

"You see sports taking over more and more.  You have soccer clinics for two-year-olds. You have leagues that encroach more and more on Sunday."

"Salve María...el fruto de su vientre, Jesus."

Father Ignacio Llorente is one of those who was  recruited to Mount Angel.  He is now pastor at St. Mary's in Corvallis.  He's noticed how many immigrants from Mexico to Oregon are not attending church:

"They become more materialistic. Many might come from a poor family and they are here and they want to make a living so they work hard for that and church can become a second priority."

He also understands the lure of the fast-growing evangelical churches where volunteer or part-time pastors and lay leaders may be more accessible:

"Many people say that I was suffering and nobody came to visit me, but then someone from another religion came and they offer consolation and comfort and that's why they switch."

At the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe earlier this month, St. Mary's was fairly crowded for a typical Spanish Catholic mass full of children, bright colors, and music:


But as with most Catholic services, there was a calmness about it. Not what you'd find at a typical Evangelical service:

(Sermon in Spanish)

The style is animated, with parishioners waving their hands, expressing themselves, at some churches speaking in tongues. But in addition to accessibility and style, it's also content that is drawing nearly half of e x-Catholic Latinos to evangelical churches. Erlinda Gonzales-Berry is the author of "Mexicans in Oregon":

"People have said to me that the evangelical churches are much stricter. They like that they require more moral discipline. And the Catholic church, Catholicism, is a forgiving religion."

But maybe most important, evangelicals tend to be missionaries. Max Calderon is pastor of a new evangelical church outside Portland.  He's had success drawing Catholics:

"When is the last time you were invited to a Catholic service? I have been here for 20-plus-years and I have never been approached to go to a church other than an evangelical church.  And so I think it's a matter of making the effort of inviting people and using the tools."

One tool Calderon uses is advertising on Spanish language radio:

(Radio ad in Spanish)

Finally, there's the matter of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.  Church officials acknowledge that some Latinos left the church because of it. But archdiocese spokesman Todd Cooper says surprisingly few. Even in Woodburn, where one of Jim Coleman's predecessor's was sentenced to prison for abusing a 12-year-old boy, Catholics have rallied:

"They had to do a lot of soul-searching because it rocks your faith whenever someone you know doesn't live up to the gospel message, and it should rock us."

While they don't put it this way, the Catholic Church is fighting back. In Corvallis, Father Llorente is using a program called San Juan Diego to reach out using retreats and community meetings:

"I think the heart of evangelization is to have people who experienced the presence of God and they experienced the beauty of believing in Jesus and then they bring friends and say Hey, like you should try this."

And at St. Alice Catholic Church in Springfield, this Christmas they'll be retweeting the Pope and they've put up a billboard saying, like Pope Francis? Come and see, in both English and Spanish.

Copyright 2014 KLCC

Jacob Lewin
Jacob Lewin is a veteran radio journalist whose work has been featured on Morning Edition, Marketplace, the Northwest News Network, and Oregon Public Broadcasting as well as KLCC-FM/Eugene .