Sacred Heart's two devout communities

David Briggs
Yaneli Barrera and Edwin Zalaya of Novato baptized their daughter Rebeca at Sacred Heart Church last Sunday, in Olema. The family heard about Father Rafael Antonio de Avila y Romero from a friend, and plans to start attending mass there.   

As evening fog drifted over the Inverness Ridge, congregants gathered in the parking lot to pray. It was Good Friday, and they had come to Sacred Heart Church in Olema to walk through the Stations of the Cross. 

The service was bilingual, a nod to the mix of white and Latino congregants, but most masses are not: every Sunday, an English mass is held at 9 a.m. and a mass in Spanish begins an hour and a half later.   

When Sacred Heart Church was first built in Olema in 1981—then called Our Lady of Lourdes—the pews were filled with Irish, Italian and Portuguese ranching families with strong Catholic ties. In those days, said Ken Eichstaedt, a member of the parish council, the congregation was made up of “all of these old Swiss Italian ranching families that have been part of the history out here. There are remnants of that at church [now], but everyone’s dying off pretty quick.”

Now Latinos comprise the majority of congregants and, despite the best efforts of many, Sacred Heart has essentially two separate communities—one Anglo, one Latino—though efforts are underway to better integrate them.

“It’s always been a trick trying to meld the communities,” said Kevin Lunny, whose family has been attending Sacred Heart for generations. “We try to find ways to comingle, but just chatting after mass is difficult when you don’t speak the same language.” Although Mr. Lunny is fluent in Spanish, most of his fellow Anglo parishioners are not. 

Looking through a window of the parish’s Freitas Center after an English service on a recent Sunday, Mr. Lunny sighed as he watched a cluster of young Latino children huddle together, chatting over donut halves many paces away from the Anglo community’s coffee hour. 

“It shouldn’t be ‘us’ and ‘them’,” he said.

Sacred Heart’s shrinking Anglo participation in part reflects a cultural diminishment of religion in America. According to a Gallup poll, between 1995 and 2017 weekly church attendance declined 36 percent. “It’s rare to see an Anglo child in church,” observed Robyn Torres, who has been attending Sacred Heart since 1987. “It’s usually a grandchild.”

The Catholic Church has taken a major public-relations hit, she said: “Overall, numbers in the Catholic Church are down—understandably so.” 

When Father Rafael Antonio de Avila y Romero began his post in 2015, the Anglo community was roughly the size it is now. Meanwhile, the Latino community has grown: young families fill the pews during the Spanish mass and young kids and teenagers comprise the church’s Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes, which are necessary to receive some of the Catholic sacraments. 

Lourdes Romo has directed those classes for the past six years. There are roughly 50 children in the program, ranging in age from 8 to 14. Most are from West Marin, but some commute in from Petaluma or Santa Rosa. 

For many Latinos, Ms. Romo said, faith is inextricably tied to culture and family. That makes it more difficult to disengage, even for younger members who do not fully identify with the faith. 

“When we go to church or mass, it’s not a question of whether you want to go,” she said. “It’s like, ‘We’re all going to mass. You don’t want to? Well, sorry, but we’re going together.’” 

When she was growing up in Point Reyes, Spanish masses at Sacred Heart were held on Saturday nights. (There is still a Spanish mass on Saturdays, but the popular Sunday morning mass was added five years ago.) “It was the highlight of the day, going to mass,” she remembers. “That’s when we saw our cousins, everybody. That was our social place: the time and place we all dressed up.” 

There were also two priests, and a congregation that was even further divided than it is now. “Back then, I didn’t even know that the English-speaking people went to mass,” Ms. Romo said. The two communities shared a church, and that was the extent of their relationship. Big cultural events linked to the church, like the Our Lady of Guadalupe festival and the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, were attended by the Latino or Anglo communities respectively. 

For her, the roots of the divide are both cultural and linguistic. “It makes a difference when you go to mass and you hear it in your language,” she said. “It’s like food for your soul. I speak okay English, and [when] I go to mass in English, it doesn’t taste the same.” 

Although some previous pastors have spoken Spanish, moderate fluency does not always translate into a feeling of the language, Father Rafael said. A native of Mexico, Father Rafael believes that a deeper understanding of the language helps him better dispense the sacred through words. 

He has also made a change inside the church. To one side of the altar, a projector screen hangs between a statue of the Virgin Mary and an enameled portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The screen displays hymns, prayers and responses in both English and Spanish during both masses. 

One parishioner said the projector was added in part because Father Rafael had heard complaints that his accent could not be understood by some Anglo congregants. Taking the matter in stride, he decided to use the screen to bring a sense of bilingualism to both groups.

Father Rafael said the divided congregation also reflects disparities in education. “Here, the Americans, most of them, have degrees,” he said. “And the Latino people—those who come from Mexico—their education level is grammar school. For some of them, it is high school.”

Ms. Romo estimated that 60 percent of the Latino parishioners have, at most, a sixth-grade education. That, she said, has exacerbated the segregation. 

Time constraints also hamper Latino representation on the parish council, the church’s decision-making body, though Ms. Romo said this was not for lack of effort on the part of Anglo members. “They have tried so hard, they’ve even tried to get me there,” she said. 

But like many other Latino congregants, Ms. Romo has a host of other commitments that tend to get in the way. 

Ismael Gutierrez tries to attend as many meetings as he can on the church’s finance council, but said that, with “raising a family and then working full-time, it’s hard to attend all those meetings.” 

Ms. Romo said the divide boils down to socioeconomic differences. “We have a poor, low-income working community who has to work two to three jobs, and then we have the very lucky, privileged white community who are retired,” she said. “I’m glad they are supporting [the church], but that’s the difference between one and the other.”

Those differences also affect the church’s finances, a point of concern for many parishioners. 

Mr. Eichstaedt described Sacred Heart as “infrastructure rich and cash poor,” as a smaller congregation means fewer tithes coming into the collection basket each week. 

Mr. Lunny called the Latino community the “most active, lively part of our congregation” but acknowledged that their “financial [support] is difficult on the wages they get.” 

Loretta Murphy, who has attended Sacred Heart for 25 years, said church used to be seen as an obligation for many Anglo Christians. “There was a guilt trip if you’re not going to mass on Sundays,” she said. “I think the church has shifted away from that, and so part of that shift is you don’t have the people who came out of habit.” 

For the Anglo community, Father Rafael said, socializing at church—or directly after it—is key. “After mass they come together and have coffee and goodies,” he said. “For them that is very important: to socialize, to feel that they are a community.” But the Latino community rarely, if ever, takes part, and does not have a corresponding ritual of their own. 

“There’s a little bit of checking in, but the Latino community is a working community,” Ms. Romo said. “That’s the day they have to do all their errands. Most take off over the hill to do their grocery shopping—[or] they go back to work. I don’t think it’s the fault of anybody, it’s just where people are in their lives.” 

One parishioner said that a brief attempt to combine the coffee hour held after English mass with the C.C.D. program’s snack time led to complaints by some of the older Anglo parishioners that the children were too noisy; they asked if the snacks could be placed at the far end of the hall, to lessen the disturbance.

Yet members of the Latino community praised their Anglo counterparts for being welcoming, and Ms. Romo could easily list off Anglo parishioners whom she commended for trying hard to bring the community together. 

“What I see is the Anglo community has been so nice in supporting us, and we help each other in a really good way,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “The community is strong because everybody helps each other.” 

Mr. Lunny praised Father Rafael as a unifying force in the church. “He’s the first priest we’ve had here who’s had success bringing the community together,” he said. “He has a real gift.” Father Rafael will be leaving the parish this summer, and Mr. Lunny noted that whoever comes next will have large shoes to fill. 

The congregation’s evolution, and its desire to meld, is mirrored in one of the church’s biggest events: the One Heart One Community Benefit. The fundraiser, which has been held for the past two years, in some ways replaces the St. Patrick’s Day barbeque, which petered out in recent years. 

The benefit came together through a conversation between Ms. Romo and Ms. Murphy about ways the church could support its undocumented community. 

“There were community members going to Father [Rafael] and seeking support or a place to stay. We realized that there was no funding for that,” Ms. Romo said. “The main idea of that was to be able to have additional funding or some sort of funding to support anybody with those needs. It brought us all together at the same time, so that’s a plus.” 

Congregants described the event, which is typically held in June, as beautiful and multicultural, but Ms. Romo said a key reason for it is simply to show the Latino community that they have the support of the parish. “That solidarity, coming together and telling your neighbor I’m here for you regardless—that’s worth more than money,” she said. 

Ms. Murphy said that human nature leads people to separate into smaller groups based on shared interests or backgrounds, but she does not see the congregation as hopelessly divided. “If I see people I know at Sacred Heart, or they see me at the grocery store, the post office, there is an instant understanding,” she said. “There is a feeling that we understand each other on a different level. A relationship develops because of a shared spiritual thing together, and that transcends how you relate with people.” 

On Good Friday, readers alternated between languages for each of the 14 Stations of the Cross. The first was read in English, the last in Spanish. And at the end of each, all of those gathered recited the three Catholic staples—the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be—in whichever language they chose, allowing the English and Spanish to layer upon one another.