SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A couple of hundred Catholics gathered inside the San Isidro-San José Parish’s historic mission church in the southwest part of town on Holy Thursday to hear a sermon on the Last Supper by the Rev. Franklin Pretto-Ferro.
Along with other Christians around the globe, they were marking the final week of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday.
The small San Isidro Catholic Church in Agua Fría village was so packed that worshippers had to squeeze together on the wooden benches for the hourlong Mass. Parishioners who arrived late had to stand. In the crowded parking lot, some cars bore license plates from Chihuahua, Mexico, where many of them were born.
As a wave of Latin Americans and Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. is leaving the Catholic Church to join Protestant denominations, at San Isidro the local Mexican immigrants have resurrected the Catholic parish.
The boom has been enough to prompt Pretto-Ferro and other church leaders to begin talking about building a bigger church.
When Pretto-Ferro took over in 1982, there were about 250 registered families. Today, membership has grown to about 2,800.
“As far as defections, I haven’t felt it,” Pretto-Ferro said. “And I know it’s happening. It’s happening all over Latin America, which is why the church can’t take the Latin Catholics for granted like they have in the past.”
Jessica Martinez, a research associate with the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center, said even though the membership of the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been declining in the past two decades, the billow of Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. has sustained the church and helped keep parishes across the country open.
“It’s not unusual to hear about certain parishes that are growing,” Martinez said. “And at the same time, you’re hearing stories about parishes that are closing down or merging with other parishes to conserve services.”
A Pew Research Center study published in 2014 says that even as the Catholic Church in the United States is losing Hispanic members, a majority of the Latino segment of the population is still Catholic. The report says that in 2010, 67 percent of the estimated 19.6 million Latino adults in the country were Catholic. In the last four years, that number declined to 55 percent.
Some experts say that having a Latin American Pope is helping to revitalize and re-energize Latino Catholics, who appreciate the Argentinian pope’s attempts to reform the church.
Pretto-Ferro said some members’ faith has been reawakened by Pope Francis’ humbleness. “It also helps that he’s from Latin America and he speaks the (Spanish) language,” he said.
The pope, however, has stirred resentment in Mexico over recent comments about drug violence there. According to news reports, he wrote in an email to an Argentinian lawmaker earlier this year that he hopes “we are in time to stop Mexicanization,” referring to a rise of drug-related violence in his home country. Mexican officials accused him of stigmatizing the country.
At San Isidro, membership is growing because many of the city’s immigrants live nearby.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 36 percent of the 19,007 people living in four census tracts east of N.M. 599, west of Cerrillos Road, north of Airport Road and south of Paseo Nopal are foreign born. This area includes a large part of Agua Fria Street.
And many relate to Pretto-Ferro, who is himself an immigrant. He comes from a Jewish family and immigrated to Albuquerque from Panama in the 1960s. It was here that he converted to Catholicism. “One day I just had a crazy idea that I wanted to be a priest,” Pretto-Ferro said.
On Thursday, Maria Garcia, 37, who emigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico, with her husband 15 years ago, attended Mass with four of her five children. Garcia has been Catholic since birth, and even though her hometown is about 1,000 miles south, she said attending the San Isidro church makes her feel a little closer to home.
A few years ago, she said, her faith in Catholicism began to falter, and she considered joining the Mormon religion. But then she found the San Isidro church. She said being around people who speak the same language and having a pastor who is also an immigrant makes her feel a sense of belonging.
Octavia Rosales, 41, who left her home state of Oaxaca, Mexico, 26 years ago, said she chose to attend San Isidro because of its Spanish-language services.
“I feel a little at home here,” she said of the church. “And overall, I like living here. I feel comfortable.”
At San Isidro, Pretto-Ferro said his parishioners feel comfortable because they are surrounded by people with similar experiences and share a culture.
“If you don’t spiritually feed the people in their language, they are going to go somewhere else,” Pretto-Ferro said.