By PAUL A. BARRA
WALHALLA — The faith in South Carolina is becoming multicultural at a faster rate than we realize, according to Sister Regina Baker, and many in the Hispanic culture are remaining hidden from Catholic workers. Because of their legal status and language difficulties, they are excluded from our faith communities.
“They are aliens and get the impression that they’re not really wanted (in our parishes),” Sister Regina said. “If the church does not reach out to them, sects will welcome them. There are a lot who do not mind knocking on doors to invite them to services.”
The Divine Providence nun knows about the success of other churches with Latinos. She is the Hispanic minister at St. Francis of Assisi Church in this small hamlet in Oconee County, as far west as you can get in South Carolina. As successful as her programs are in liturgy-based catechesis taught by Spanish-speaking educators and English language classes and faith sharing, she never loses sight of the looming shadow of Luz del Mundo (“Light of the World”) Church. The evangelical church that was founded in Guadalajara, Mexico, may not be as attractive a building as the quaint St. Francis and it may not espouse the traditional Catholic religion of Latin America but it attracts Mexican-Americans in Oconee by the hundreds.
“There is a great need for Hispanic ministers in the Catholic Church. If any staff member in any parish in the diocese is conscious of Hispanic families in the area, he or she must learn Spanish, at least enough to welcome the families to church,” Sister Regina said.
In Walhalla, the Latinos are mostly from seven or eight states in Mexico. They are employed in local factories and in construction. They are citizens or becoming citizens, and that opened up another major field of endeavor for Sister Regina Baker.
“They are not migrants. Most have worked in big cities and are looking for communities where there is not as much danger for their kids. I help them with applications and teach them that they have certain rights,” she said.
The Latinos in Walhalla are devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe and love to pray the rosary. Formal faith formation is often lacking, however, and that’s when Sister Regina’s background kicks in. She was a teacher for 20 years before turning to Hispanic ministry in 1980 through the Mexican-American Cultural Center in San Antonio. She even writes her own bilingual catechism manuals and lesson plans. She is now hoping to get representatives from MAC’s mobile team to visit her area next year for leadership training. They will find fertile ground, she says, because there are many more Hispanics in the Piedmont than previously thought.
“We made a push with the census, and I am eager to see what it says. The numbers usually spoken of are a big underestimation, because many in the area are not registered with a parish,” the nun said.
There could be two or three thousand Hispanics in Oconee and Pickens counties alone, she says. Tiny St. Francis overflows every Sunday for the noon Mass, which is in Spanish. Sister Regina, who ministered in Ecuador and Brownsville, Texas, and in Indiana and Michigan before coming to South Carolina three years ago, is a big reason for the participation. She is grateful for the opportunity given to her by the Paulist priests who administer St. Francis, as well as St. Andrew in Clemson and St. Paul the Apostle in Seneca. She thinks the Diocese of Charleston is full of similar opportunities.
“The need is there. There just has to be a vision on the part of all,” she said.