It was an atypical Sunday in Columbia on Jan. 25. An early morning outburst of wintry fury had covered the city in a thick layer of ice. After the ice storm, a heavy snowfall blanketed the streets and sidewalks, leaving them virtually forsaken.
As the flakes fell fast, almost like a hard rain, a woman hurried across Locust Street to the safety of a small gray building. Inside, she found warmth and a kind man waiting for her.
“Hola,” the man said to her. “Eres una mujer muy fuerte.”
“Hello,” the Rev. Edwin Cole had said to Elena Rodríguez. “You are a very strong woman.” A faithful churchgoer, Rodríguez had entered la Iglesia Católica del Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart Catholic Church), the only place in Columbia where Catholic Masses are celebrated in Spanish.
The Spanish Masses are usually celebrated on the fourth Sunday of every month. But on this day, Cole decided to cancel Mass because of the harsh weather. Still, a few parishioners braved the elements and arrived safely. The disappointment on their faces was easy to read when Cole told them that Mass was canceled.
Rodríguez, a Costa Rican graduate student at MU, has come to every Spanish Mass since she arrived in Columbia a year and a half ago.
“Everything all over the world is being celebrated exactly the same,” she said. “The only thing that changes is the language. So if you were to go to Mass in China, you would be just listening to it in Chinese, but it would be exactly the same.
“But it’s different when you listen to it in your own language. You can enjoy it so much better,” Rodríguez said. “It’s also great to be able to share with the rest of the Hispanic community and come together.”
During the Masses, the readings, homily, songs and prayers are all in Spanish. After each reading, the lector says, “Palabra de Dios” (word of God), and the congregation responds, “Te alabamos, Señor” (we praise you, Lord).
Rather than simply translate his English homily, Cole preaches an entirely different one to the Hispanics. Carlos Vázquez-Ramos, director of music and liturgy for the church, and his wife, Dina, are from Puerto Rico. Both are musicians for the Spanish Masses.
The adherence to tradition at Sacred Heart helps remind the Hispanic parishioners of their heritage because they are far away from their home countries, Rodríguez said.
“Coming here really makes us remember who we are and what we’re doing here in this world,” she said. “It makes us better citizens.”
Sometimes non-Hispanics like to attend the Spanish Masses. Zbigniew Szczepanski is such a person. Szczepanski frequently assists the pastor by being a Eucharistic minister and a lector. He enjoys going to the Hispanic Masses because they help improve his Spanish skills.
The Sacred Heart Spanish Masses have been celebrated for the past four years, and Cole has led them for the past two years. He has been speaking Spanish since 1967. After he was ordained a priest, he got a master’s degree in communication and studied Spanish at the University of Kansas.
Cole said that because most Hispanics are Catholic, it is important for them to be able to worship in their own language. Columbia’s Hispanic population and attendance at the Spanish Masses are connected: As the city’s Hispanic population grows, the crowds at the Spanish Masses increase. About 125 Hispanics attend Spanish Mass.
The Hispanic population in Boone County increased by almost 97 percent between 1990 and 2000, from about 1,225 to a little more than 2,400, according to the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis. Cole said that because of this increase, he often thought about having the Mass more than once a month. But he is the only pastor at Sacred Heart and has a busy schedule. In addition to running the eight English-language Masses every week, he is also a hospital chaplain on call five days and five nights a week.
But next week Cole’s hope becomes a reality. Beginning Sunday, the Spanish Masses will be celebrated on both the second and fourth Sundays of each month. The Rev. Rafael Rentería, a “sacerdote invitado” (invited priest) from Mexico will assist Cole with the Masses until June.
“I just decided that this was a good opportunity to start another Mass,” said Cole. “If (the parishioners) continue to come when (Rentería) leaves, we will continue twice a month — so it really depends upon them.”
Parishioner Héctor Sánchez said he is pleased that the Spanish Masses will now be celebrated more often. “I think it’s going to be great,” he said. “I think many more Hispanic people are going to come. Sometimes it’s difficult for us to understand everything in English, so we try to look for options in Spanish.”
Sánchez said the Spanish Masses at Sacred Heart make the parishioners feel like they are at home. “It is like in our country,” he said. “You can get all the same things that you get in your country.”
The Hispanic Masses attract a wide variety of people. “I remember once, and this has been a year and a half ago, we had a gathering afterwards and I asked them to introduce themselves, and we had people from 12 different countries,” Cole said. “They came with different customs and different backgrounds. Many of the people who come are from Mexico and they’re here to work. On the other hand, we have people like Elena from Costa Rica. So we’ve got a real mixture of people in terms of professions, backgrounds and countries.”
Thus, Sacred Heart serves as a shelter from storms both literally and figuratively. In Rodríguez’s case, the church was a temporary relief from a winter storm. But its Spanish Masses are also a symbolic haven from the storm of an unfamiliar culture. The Masses provide Columbia’s Hispanics with cultural, emotional and spiritual warmth.
“It’s important that, within the context of church, we create a community for these people,” Cole said, “so that they have a sense of belonging and that they know we are doing something to instill their own faith.”