Walking into the Church of St. Stephen in South Minneapolis on a Sunday morning is walking into a church bursting at the seams. Yet, in 2007 St. Stephen’s was on the verge of shutting its doors.

In 2008, Father Joseph Williams, the pastor of St. Stephen’s, was assigned by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis to rebuild the parish physically and spiritually. Only one year after narrowly escaping closure, St. Stephen’s began rapidly growing into a vibrant, predominately Hispanic Catholic community. Williams grew the parish by using a mission approach, which has become the rhythm of the parish: evangelization, formation and an invitation to serve. The people encountered during these missions live impoverished, marginalized lives, and are seeking to be loved and included, so St. Stephen’s focuses on helping them encounter a merciful and guiding God who seeks to love them.

The fruits of this approach have established a parish of 1,600 Latino parishioners and a growing English-speaking community.

St. Stephen’s parishioners are not only in the pews but in catechesis classes, including the confirmation classes that are run by the Latino leaders from the Center for Catholic Studies Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership.

The Latino Leadership Program started in 2001 as a scholarship outreach that provides Catholic Latinos the opportunity to earn a degree in both Catholic studies and another field while in a formation program that supports them academically, spiritually and socially.

Dr. Michael Naughton, the director of the Center for Catholic Studies, noted that this program was created “not as a way for the students to escape their communities, but a way for them to re-engage and give back to the communities they came from.”

That’s certainly held true for the several leaders who had St. Stephen’s as their home parish before coming to St. Thomas. Alejandra Chavez-Rivas was one of those parishioners who, in her words, “kept ourselves in the shadows.” She was a student of the catechesis program and is now a St. Thomas freshman in the Latino Leadership Program. The program structure gives her and other students the opportunity to connect with their native Latino community while forming connections within the Department of Catholic Studies and St. Thomas.

Transformational work

(Left to right) Sotro, Joe Ferro '17 and Moises Sanchez Garcia '18 with confirmation students.

(Left to right) Sotro, Joe Ferro ’17 and Moises Sanchez Garcia ’18 with confirmation students.

The 2015-16 confirmation class is filled to capacity, with more than 70 girls and 60 boys. The Latino leaders who teach the classes at St. Stephen’s often find that they can relate to the students in a special way. They connect through similar cultural experiences, and many of the leaders are immigrants or first-generation college students who have endured comparable hardships.

Being a Latino leader is a big responsibility, but it is also rewarding. During the two years I have been in the program, I have enjoyed being able to witness how my Catholic studies education engages the students. Being able to talk about a concept or answer a student’s question because of something I learned in class demonstrates, for me, how rich and fulfilling our Catholic faith truly is. It captives adolescents, and that says something.

I know other Latino leaders in the program who have had similar experiences with their students: This past January, the male Latino leaders and their male students watched a clip about saints Peter and Paul from Bishop Barron’s Catholicism series.

“As I sat there, I had this idea,” said St. Thomas junior and Latino leader Joe Ferro. “I just thought, we’re literally a block from the MIA; we’re going to go. They need to see ‘The Denial of St. Peter.’”

Ferro, along with three of the other leaders, paused the clip and took 60 boys between the ages of 14 and 17 on a one-block adventure. Though the boys go to Mass around the corner from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, none of them had been there before. They formed groups of 10 to find the painting and were there for about 20 minutes.

“They all just walked around the museum, wide-eyed, just looking, taking it all in. When we walked out those doors, there was just this joy about the group,” Ferro said. Currently, there are nine Latino leaders, and the Center for Catholic Studies hopes to double or triple the number of students in the Habiger Institute Latino Leadership Program within the next few years. The growth will benefit not only the Latino students by creating a stronger community for them at St. Thomas, but also the St. Stephen’s youth and, eventually, the broader U.S. Latino Catholic community.

I am encouraged to see the power of God transform so many of our St. Stephen’s students during their confirmation journeys.

I know all of the Latino leaders feel privileged to partake in this transformation. It is what makes our hard work so worthwhile.

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