Latinos find faith in Montevallo

By EMILY BECKETT / Staff Writer

Dozens of people fill rows and rows of pews as Father Bruce Bumbarger prepares to lead mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Montevallo Sunday afternoon.

It is a typical mass for this church, except for one difference.

Every word, spoken or sung, is Spanish.

As local populations of Hispanic residents continue to grow, churches in Shelby County are welcoming their growth with Spanish worship services and outreach ministries.

St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Montevallo is one church breaking the language barrier and bridging the gap among hundreds of Shelby County residents.

In the 1980s, St. Thomas implemented a Spanish mass held once a month.

Word spread, attendance increased and eventually, the church began holding a Spanish mass every Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Father Bruce Bumbarger leads the Spanish mass, and Father Ray Dunmyer leads the English mass.

Marisa Owens, the Hispanic coordinator at St. Thomas, said the masses are the same in every way besides the language.

“Anything that we do here at St. Thomas is offered to the Hispanics,” Owens said. “Whether they come or not is their decision.”

Although St. Thomas has a Hispanic parish council and a handful of bilingual leaders and helpers, Owens is often the primary translator for many Hispanic members.

“They understand more than they lead on, but I’m here to translate for them,” Owens said. “I’m learning from them.”

Atop Owens’ tidy wooden desk sit notebooks with long lists of contact information for Hispanic church members.

Owens’ computer screen shows the bulletin she is compiling for this week’s Spanish mass. Father Bruce has just sent her an announcement about an upcoming church retreat.

Her phone does not rest for more than 15 minutes at a time, but Owens handles each call with friendliness and finesse.

Owens already has a family, but she treats church members and guests like they are part of it.

Perhaps this is one reason why Spanish ministries at St. Thomas have been so successful.

“Anything negative I get is outside the church,” Owens said. “They feel at home here, (and) they feel welcome.”

The number of attendees for Spanish mass varies each week, especially in the summer when families go on vacation.

According to Owens, more than 50 Hispanic families attend Spanish services at St. Thomas and look forward to their first Holy Communion and then confirmation.

Owens said attendance is usually higher from September to May, when a program called Faith Formation is underway.

“We do have visitors,” Owens said. “We have some that travel — I call them gypsies. Most who are registered here do come here.”

Owens said several Hispanic church members have told her they feel at home at St. Thomas.

“It’s really up to the Hispanic community,” Owens said. We’re just waiting for them to step up. We’re open.”

About six years ago, St. Thomas was the first church in the Birmingham area to offer a bilingual mass.

Although the church eventually separated the English and Spanish masses, anyone may attend either mass.

“Some people come to the Spanish mass to see how it is,” Owens said.

St. Thomas offers a Hispanic breakfast the third Sunday of every month and a Valentine’s Day dance in February for the adults.

Mercedes Martinez, of Alabaster, has been a member at St. Thomas for about 14 years.

She said she started coming to church by herself.

“Now, I have a lot of friends,” Martinez said. “I like the communication.”

Martinez previously helped translate for people at doctors’ offices and home visits and said she has no problems speaking or listening to English.

Owens and Martinez are friends in and out of church. They walk together most mornings every week.

Members Maria Rivera, Pilar Avalos and Marisol Casas said Owens helped them become more involved in weekly activities when they first started coming to St. Thomas.

“Everybody here is very friendly (and) helpful,” Rivera said.

Avalos said her 15-year-old son will participate in vacation Bible school at St. Thomas this summer.

“It is like a family,” Avalos said.

Casas’ three children attend Sunday school, and her daughter and Rivera’s daughter are altar servers.

“The youth program is English and Spanish,” Owens said. “We don’t divide.”

Martinez said she helps prepare the Hispanic breakfasts each month.

St. Thomas also offers baptism classes in Spanish, as well as free Spanish and English classes on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Owens said.

In her office, Owens said she occasionally assists Hispanics with faxing documents to Mexico and copying and printing important papers.

She said she sees room for improvement in the Hispanic ministries at St. Thomas from both church staff and Hispanic attendees.

“We need to get more organized, and they need to step up more,” Owens said. “They bring new things.”