Saturday, May 10, 2014 | 2 a.m.
While some St. Louisans celebrated Cinco de Mayo with guacamole and beer, the women of St. Cecilia Catholic Church marked it with their devotion.
On Monday night, draped with veils, or "mantillas" in Spanish, they strolled into St. Cecilia, an overwhelmingly Hispanic parish famous in the city for its fish fries.
Acoustic Spanish music strummed live in the background.
And during the homily, the Rev. Anthony Ochoa, the only Hispanic priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, joked even Mexicans aren't sure what Cinco de Mayo is all about.
Maria Lara, 49, who is from Mexico but now helps prepare lunches for schoolchildren in the city, says attending a church where the priest speaks her language is crucial, though she has learned English after more than two decades in the states.
"We can understand it, but it doesn't feel the same," Lara said of the other Masses in the region.
A new survey of more than 5,000 Hispanics by the Pew Research Center finds that parishes like St. Cecilia are facing a paradox: Even as the population of Hispanic Catholics is rising in the U.S., a greater number are defecting to other faiths.
Nearly 1 in 4 Hispanic adults, or 24 percent, are now former Catholics, according to the survey.
Roman Catholics who have left the faith have tended to either drift toward a Protestant denomination or have ended their affiliation with religion altogether. According to the Pew Research Center survey, about 22 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. identify as Protestant, while 18 percent say they are religiously unaffiliated.
Yet more than half of the nation's estimated 35.4 million Hispanics, or 19.6 million, identify as Catholics.
And as of 2013, one-third, or 33 percent, of all U.S. Roman Catholics were Hispanics, according to the Pew Research Center.
So as the study puts it, even as Hispanics leave the church, because of the growing size of the Hispanic population, "a day could come when a majority of Catholics in the United States will be Hispanic, even though the majority of them might no longer be Catholic."
Or as a different recent study — the National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry — notes: "Hispanics account for 71 percent of the growth of the Catholic population in the United States since 1960."
That study, released Monday, was written by Hosffman Ospino, professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Of the approximately 2.2 million people who reside in the 11 counties of the St. Louis Archdiocese, 57,900 are Hispanic, or 2.6 percent, according to a 2012 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey.
According to the pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry for the archdiocese, 11 percent of Roman Catholics in the region are expected to be Hispanics by 2020.
Currently, Catholic churches in St. Louis with a large Hispanic population include not only St. Cecilia but parishes such as Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Holy Trinity Catholic Parish in St. Ann.
Churches in the Diocese of Belleville, such as Holy Rosary Parish in Fairmont City, also have welcomed an influx of Hispanic immigrants, many of them from Mexico.
"I think it's huge for our future," said Sister Rose Ann Ficker, director of Hispanic ministry at Holy Trinity Catholic Parish. "The archdiocese is just kind of awakening to the Hispanic presence."
"But it is starting to change and becoming more positive."
Although Hispanic Catholics overwhelmingly approve of Pope Francis, with eight in 10 giving him either a very favorable rating or mostly favorable rating, Hispanics have switched faiths for multiple reasons, according to the Pew Research Center survey.
Asked about why they defected, more than half of those surveyed said they just gradually drifted away from the church. About an equal number indicated they stopped believing in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
And still others, 49 percent, said they left Catholicism for Protestantism because it "reaches out and helps its members more."
While only 3 percent mentioned the sexual abuse crisis as a reason for leaving the Roman Catholic Church, a vast majority felt strongly that the Vatican needed to do more to address the scandal.
The survey also notes that most Hispanic Catholics are at odds with the church's teachings on divorce and contraception. Most also favor allowing priests to marry and women to become priests.
Beatrice Watters, 53, regularly attends Mass at St. Cecilia. Originally from Michoacan, Mexico, Watters has noticed a rise in the number of parishioners frequenting the church.
She attributes the growth to the Rev. Ochoa and the impact he has made on the community.
But Ochoa, who moved to St. Louis from California in 2001 and was ordained here in the archdiocese in 2010, says he needs help in meeting the growing demands of Hispanic Catholics in the region.
"I get the sense sometimes that we are oblivious," Ochoa said. "The church in St. Louis has the potential to do much more to grow the Hispanic population."
Ochoa said serving as the only Hispanic priest in the archdiocese can feel isolating, yet challenging and rewarding at the same.
"When I got here people starting coming out of the woodwork because I could understand their confessions," Ochoa said.
"There is no one who is young slotted for these things. I'm it."
The archdiocese has, however, begun to take steps to meet future needs.
"We are very blessed to have an archdiocese that is really committed to reaching out," said Javier Orozco, director of the office of Hispanic ministry at the archdiocese, which was established in 1995. Still, Orozco admits the lack of Spanish-speaking priests continues to be a problem.
Archbishop Robert Carlson is overseeing the ordination of two seminarians from Colombia, but it may be as long as eight years before the two men can fully function as priests.
And there are other practical concerns as well. Hispanic parishes tend to be poorer than others, with the attending community able to contribute little monetarily. St. Cecilia, for example, still has no air conditioner, a concern as the summer approaches.
But Irving Gonzalez, 17, a junior at Cleveland Junior Naval Academy, who is from Veracruz, Mexico, says he expects to continue attending St. Cecilia, despite the fact that some of his friends have chosen to leave the Roman Catholic Church.
"Catholicism is a place where I belong, a community," Irving said. "I feel welcome."