BATESBURG-LEESVILLE — The parish of St. John of the Cross had to rent a huge catering hall for its ninth annual Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration on Dec. 11. Nearly 800 people gathered for the fiesta.
“This is the first year we’ve had it indoors,” said parishioner Joan Tworzyanski. “We used to have it on the church grounds, but it has grown tremendously over the years.”
Most at the Mass and party were of Hispanic heritage, and almost everyone was a parishioner of the rural parish. The numbers reflect what Father Filemon Juya, the church’s pastor, called the reality of the Latino population in the Diocese of Charleston.
“When people talk about a half-million Hispanics in the state, they are probably not exaggerating,” he said. “Tonight at St. John Neumann (in Columbia) we will have the same or a bigger number of people.”
Other festivals took place on the same weekend at Our Lady of the Hills in Columbia, St. Mary in Aiken, and mission parishes in North Augusta, Saluda and Newberry, according to Father Juya. The thousands who attended those celebrations were Hispanics who live in the Midlands.
The original members of St. John of the Cross — those who call themselves the Anglo population — have welcomed the guests from South America who have since come to represent the vast majority of membership there. That is according to Janet Hayden, the parish director of religious education.
“We are a small minority now,” Hayden said. “Even our Sunday School classes are bilingual.”
She thinks that the assimilation has gone well and that the mix of cultures into one parish has been a success.
“Ninety-eight percent of us are delighted with the change,” she said. “We like the diversity the Hispanics bring, their piety and the richness of their devotion to the faith.”
Another parishioner attending Mass at the Our Lady of Guadalupe feast agreed with her. Tony Derrick said that he is glad the Hispanics have come to fill out the working-class parish.
“They have done so much for the community and so much for our church,” Derrick said.
Hayden said that the Hispanic people have proven to be generous with their time and talent, though few have much money to give. (“We count our collections in ones,” she said.) Both weekend Spanish-language Masses at St. John of the Cross are filled to overflowing every week, and many cannot get inside for the service — a tribute, she says, to the gift Father Juya has for bringing cultures together.
“We are a church,” the priest said, “not an Hispanic community and an Anglo community. We are one community. Culture does not divide us. One love unites us.”
He says the parish has separate Masses only because of the limitations of language, and that the biggest problem of the church in Batesburg-Leesville is space.
“We could use a church building three or four times as large as the one we have,” Father Juya said. “But, we are the poor working with the poor.”
Still, the hundreds celebrating the feast of the patron saint of the Americas on Dec. 11 in Leesville enjoyed themselves. After Mass they ate, danced and laughed while their children played with clowns, visited, enjoyed traditional dances and singing, and ate some more. The actual feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, named after a Marian visitation to St. Juan Diego in Mexico almost 500 years ago, is Dec. 12. The vestments worn by the priest and other ministers came from Mexico, and the featured statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe was donated to St. John of the Cross by a Hispanic parishioner.