Story by: Brian Whepley

Significant demographic changes carry major implications for the Catholic Church in Kansas, not to mention the state as a whole. The Journal looks at how church officials are embracing the leadership challenge of energizing others over responding to the church’s changing ethnic mix.

When St. Margaret Mary Catholic School held its open house in August, parents of its 180-some students gathered in the gym for introductions of teachers, staff, the heads of the parent/teacher organization, and other groups. The Wichita parish’s priest, the Rev. Eric Weldon, then asked Spanish-speaking parents to head off to the church, while Vietnamese- and English-speaking parents moved to another, smaller room.

Weldon speaks English, Spanish and a bit of  Vietnamese, while the principal is fluent in Vietnamese and English and could translate the pastor’s message of stewardship, a crucial one in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, where Catholic parishioners who tithe – talent and time as well as treasure – pay no tuition.

In Kansas’ southwest corner, Bishop John Brungardt leads the Diocese of Dodge City and its 48 churches in 28 counties. When he was assigned his first parish in Arkansas City in 2001, he was charged by his bishop to begin a “more profound Hispanic ministry” in a community that’s become increasingly filled by those who trace their identity and heritage to Latin American countries such as Mexico and Guatemala where Spanish is the predominant language.

Brungardt was soon off to Mexico for five months to study the language and culture, and now leads a diocese where more than half of Catholic households speak Spanish at home. Still, when he goes to some churches in Dodge City and Liberal, he must nod and smile and let others translate. Because for the natives of Guatemala who live there, if they know Spanish at all, it is their second language to such indigenous dialects as K’iche or Chuj.

“It’s a challenge ministering to the Anglo population that might have been here many generations, is very enculturated American, and then the Hispanic culture, typically Mexico but also Guatemala and some other countries, whether they be new immigrants or second- or third-generation. There’s quite a mix here,” Brungardt says, referring to the range of people but just as easily to the challenges.

  • Parishioners fill a Spanish-speaking mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Wichita.

Catholic officials such as Weldon and Brungardt are among those trying to respond to major adaptive challenges being wrought by demographic change. Since 2000, the number of Hispanics living in Kansas has increased from 188,000 to nearly 330,000. Their ability to find success matters not just for the Catholic Church, but potentially for Kansas as a whole.

About 20 percent of Kansans are Catholic, and the church is a major institution with credibility among Hispanics, non-Hispanic whites and other ethnicities. Projections suggest that Kansas, like the church, will grow increasingly diverse over the next 50 years.

Churches have long played a crucial role in helping immigrants adapt to a new culture and strengthen their connections with the broader community. In responding to its own adaptive challenges, can the Catholic Church play a key role in helping better prepare Kansas and its communities for their own more diverse future by empowering newcomers and forging bonds across ethnic differences?

The Challenge of Energizing Others

Weldon, on his “second rodeo” at a heavily Hispanic church, calls the flow of Hispanics into Wichita over the past two decades “diluvial.” The stats agree.

The number of Hispanics in Sedgwick County more than tripled between 1990 and 2010 to more than 64,000 people, according to the census. Many Kansas cities, especially ones with meatpacking and manufacturing jobs such as Arkansas City, Dodge City, Liberal and others, have seen similar influxes. And whether they’re Hispanic with a generation or two in the United States or new arrivals from largely Catholic countries, they’re filling the pews at Catholic churches.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown University research center, the U.S. in 2013 had an estimated 80 million people who identified as Catholic, more than 30 million of them Hispanic, about 38 percent of the total. In the Wichita diocese in 2010, more than 53,000 Catholics of about 168,000 total were Hispanic, the center reported. Without them, many Catholic parishes could be facing the same membership challenges as their mainline Protestant neighbors. And schools also would have many more empty desks and, in some cases, could be fighting a numbers game that’s closed urban Catholic schools across the country.

The denomination is no stranger to ethnic and immigrant congregations. Germans, Italians, Croatians and others came to Kansas, built churches, worshiped together and steadily assimilated. But the Hispanic population is a story with a twist, because it plays out in established and once largely white dioceses and parishes and it involves a diverse ethnic group drawn from many countries, languages and generations. Hispanic, as a look at any census report will tell you, means many things, but homogeneity isn’t one of them.

As with any church, new members, multiple generations, multiple languages and time itself bring with them some often painful changes and losses that people must adapt to. English service times shift to make room for Spanish masses, altar societies wither, men’s clubs die off, sometimes replaced by new committees or organizations, sometimes not.

  • The Most Rev. John Brungardt, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Dodge City, once studied Spanish in Mexico and now leads a diocese where half of Catholic households speak Spanish.

A once popular Mexican dinner loses customers as new immigrants not partial to Tex-Mex opt out. Many Hispanic students fill seats in some Catholic schools but also deliver a financial challenge. The collection plate lightens, as older and often better-off parishioners die off and younger, less financially secure members fill pews. And although one in the faith, a diverse Catholic parish can seem like two or even three parishes in one, with the lines falling along language. Making all feel welcome, and giving them a voice in their church home, is a challenge.

It’s a dynamic that raises the relevance of three important Kansas Leadership Center ideas for energizing others: speaking to loss, working across factions and inspiring a collective purpose.

“When you are so comfortable in a parish or community and something starts changing, nobody likes change,” says Danny Krug, the Wichita diocese’s director of Hispanic ministry. “Why do we have to change? Why do we have to adapt? That’s a human thing, and that is the challenge.”

As with many facets of faith, it’s not always easy to be both human and to respond to Jesus’ call, as Brungardt cites from the Gospel of John, “‘that all may be one since the Father and I are one.’ … He’s talking about coming together as a people of God, no matter our skin color, no matter our language or accent, no matter our culture or country. How can we come together? That’s what we’re trying to emphasize here.”

Speaking the Language 

Efforts to respond to the changes underway have sparked a number of leadership interventions by church officials, some better received than others.

Language is no doubt the biggest, most obvious barrier in a diverse church. Learning a language is challenging for many of us – priests included – but it’s a skill that can be acquired. As the Rev. Patrick Reilley at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Arkansas City says, it’s a technical challenge.

From signs, services and seminarians to newsletters, classes and websites, parishes and dioceses have taken many steps over the years to meet it.

Same-sized signs hang outside Sacred Heart Catholic School in Arkansas City. One portrays the Sacred Heart of Jesus, connecting to the parish name and Caucasian roots. The other shows Our Lady of Guadalupe, a celebrated symbol of Hispanic Catholicism. The lettering on both simply says, “Sacred Heart School” and “Escuela Sagrado Corazon,” its Spanish equivalent.

“There’s a sense in which that just by the exterior symbols, people are welcome there and that we are speaking to their heart,” says Reilley.

Outside St. Margaret Mary, tucked into a neighborhood just south of Harry Street in south-central Wichita, signs list Mass and confession times in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. In the early 1980s, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, at 23rd and Market streets in a neighborhood that’s been home to Hispanics for more than a century, was Wichita’s first parish to hold Spanish masses. Now, 13 churches across the Wichita diocese offer one or more Spanish Masses weekly, ranging from more Hispanic central Wichita to communities such as Arkansas City, Pittsburg, Independence and Newton. In the Dodge City diocese, 17 parishes offer Spanish or bilingual Mass from once a month to twice weekly.

“When Spanish Masses began, the numbers of Hispanics quickly grew,” says Weldon, while mentioning that accommodating newcomers sent some longtime members seeking greater English options to other parishes.

Such changes, however, can also result in pushback from those invested in the status quo, even in a religious setting.

In any house of worship, few things stir righteous indignation like messing with worship schedules. Brungardt ventured onto that troubled ground in Arkansas City years ago, moving Sunday Masses back an hour and making the later service bilingual, annoying some early risers. “And then he slowly introduced the Spanish language service,” says Diane Fiorentino, a parish council member who was church secretary for 11 years. “Some people just completely got offended, and they’d go, ‘Now I have to go to 9 o’clock Mass? That’s my only choice?’ Some people even left and would just go to Winfield or Newkirk, Oklahoma.”

The learning curve isn’t limited to parishioners. Few parish priests grew up speaking Spanish, but the Wichita Catholic Diocese and Brungardt in Dodge City now require seminarians to study the language, whether in seminary or in intensive programs. Wichita seminarians spend summers with Spanish-speaking families to hone their skills. “Even the bishop has gone to his summer immersion in the Spanish language, and he speaks it,” Krug says of Bishop Carl Kemme. “He’s now doing his sermons in Spanish.”

In their learning, they all have a model in Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the Americas, whose native language is Spanish but who also speaks Italian, Portuguese, French, German, Ukrainian, Piedmontese and, of course, Latin.

Having staff fluent in Spanish is both welcoming and essential to the functioning of the parish and building connections with Hispanics.

“When I came here, I had to have a Spanishspeaking secretary in the school, and I had to have Spanish-speaking secretaries here,” says Weldon of St. Margaret Mary, which is two-thirds Hispanic. “Depending on the nature of when they arrive and what kind of work that they do, or even if they work out of the house, they speak English at different levels, but still Spanish is the language of their heart and their mind and their religion, which is why we have to have Spanish here.”

“They’ve built that up,” Joe Rodriguez, a third-generation Mexican-American, says of Spanish skills in the diocese. “If you feel comfortable and you’re able to listen and understand what’s going on, it’s huge,” says Rodriguez, who covered religion for The Wichita Eagle and now serves as development director at Holy Savior Church in Wichita.

Rodriguez’s own experience is indicative of the layers of language and challenge in a changing church. Like many from families here for generations, he speaks English in everyday life and attends English Mass at St. Patrick’s, having moved from Our Lady of Perpetual Help after English Masses became progressively fewer. Other, younger Catholics may choose differently.

“We have young people who don’t really speak Spanish on their own, with their friends or among each other, but they prefer to go to a Spanish language Mass because it’s there that they encounter the Catholicism they are most comfortable with, the cultural parts of Catholicism that make them feel at home, the music, the other people, the way people respond to God in that context,” Reilley says.

Both the Wichita and Dodge City dioceses have offices of Hispanic ministry that provide support and programs to parishes and can serve as a conduit for Hispanic members – often new to the country and the diocese – to immigration and other services by Catholic Charities and other ministries. Nationally, the church is undergoing its V Encuentro, a fifth national and multilayered four-year effort to discern how to better welcome and minister to growing Hispanic – and often young – memberships.

Krug, a native of Venezuela, says her office organizes bilingual and Spanish language faith formation classes, an extended program drawing up to 100 people in regular sessions each year. It also helps make sure that catechist training – lay teachers of the faith for youth and adults – and other programs have Spanish sessions or use a system employing headsets and translation. Sometimes, in a flip reflective of the times, Spanish is translated for English speakers. The goal of her office, first organized in the 1990s, is to help parishes and other church ministries reach out and serve Hispanic members, to assist rather than to dictate, she says.

Diocesan and parish newsletters have pages of translated articles. Brungardt says his diocese is working to beef up its website with bilingual materials. This fall for the first time, one of its pastoral formation classes for lay people will be taught in Spanish through Newman University – for the far-flung diocese, transmitting interactive video to satellite locations is essential.

Spanish and bilingual efforts address one challenge and point to another, particularly among immigrants. “A lot of people here have up to a third-grade level of education. I have people attending marriage education classes who couldn’t read. Putting something in the bulletin, you cannot trust that they can read it,” says the Rev. Jerome Spexarth of Wichita’s St. Patrick Church, a parish established more than 100 years ago that has grown progressively more Hispanic.

Places to Create Unity 

If you want folks speaking different languages to have a common purpose and understanding, school is a good place to start. “The school is a big bridge and continues to be a cohesive presence in our parish,” Spexarth says.

“The school provides that meeting place between the generations and between the different cultures,” says Reilley, whose Arkansas City church is about one-third Hispanic, from long-established Mexican families to recently arrived Guatemalans drawn by jobs in meatpacking and manufacturing. “The kids become friends with each other. They spend the night at each other’s houses. They play with each other, so those kids are exposed to something different, a different way, a different culture. … It changes from the ‘Spanish people’ to they start calling each other by their names. They say, ‘Myrna,’ they say, ‘Maria,’ they say, ‘Susie.’ They don’t think of each other as that person or that language, but this person I know, my neighbor, my kid’s friend. And that builds a real bond between people.”

The Wichita diocese’s Catholic schools – home to nearly 11,000 students – have been called some of the most successful in the country. Its stewardship-based model – if you’re Catholic and tithe time, talent and money to the parish, your kids attend free – has helped the school system survive and thrive at a time when Catholic schools in many dioceses are shrinking and expensive. The Hispanic influx has bolstered its inner-city schools, filling desks that otherwise might be empty, but filling them with students from younger, often less financially able families. A diocesan program, the St. Katharine Drexel Fund, lets Catholics diocese-wide help level the field by sending money to challenged parishes.

“Our school is more Caucasian than Hispanic, but that has changed each year and it’s become more Hispanic, more reflective of the actual demographics of the parish,” Reilley says. “I’ve made a conscious effort to invite more families from the Hispanic community to enroll their children in the school. One of the challenges we face is that our own success in some ways hurts us.”

A Place at the Table 

Energizing others remains a significant challenge, and Catholic officials have at times needed to use authority to bring a broader array of voices to churches, even as they keep an eye on the more adaptive aspects of the challenge.

Churches have paid priests and staff, but congregations large and small run on volunteers. From parish council members to people willing to wash windows, greet newcomers, handle finances, put out flowers or assist priests administering sacraments, churches require workers and lay leaders. And the people doing the work should look like the people in the pews, pastors say, which hasn’t always been the case.

Weldon recalls replacing two of St. Patrick’s parish council members – of Hispanic descent but not Spanish speaking – with two Spanish speakers. Similarly, arriving at St. Margaret Mary in 2010, “there was something wrong” with the council: It was all-white and English-speaking, while a secondary group consisted of Hispanic members. Using a priest’s cabinet-like authority, he made the council diverse.

  • Ana Ojeda receives communion from the Rev. Eric Weldon at the morning school Mass at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Wichita.

“I have Vietnamese representation and Hispanic immigrant representation. I have to have that, which upset people,” says Weldon.

St. Patrick’s is working to identify “puentes” – bridges – within its ministries. “Some of the ministries don’t have bilingual leaders but have Hispanics who are part of that ministry. (Church members) can contact that Hispanic person,” says Beatrice Keck, the parish’s bilingual secretary, whose parents came from Mexico. “They’re a bridge between the English speakers and the Hispanics.”

“The feeling of ownership is a big one, and that goes with the programs,” Spexarth says.

Zeroing in on a specific task can help build community.

For Brungardt, one thing “that’s been very successful is to get a working group together of the different backgrounds, and meet with them in an open dialogue, and get them to know one another, and get some concrete ideas of what we can do in our parish, right now, right here, with these tensions. … I’ve seen that done very successfully, culminating in … a prayer service together, a youth activity together, a meal together. I’ve seen it bear great, great fruit.”

When his parish council is wrestling with difficult issues, Reilley says, he tries to remind himself that he’s already had the chance to confront the problem.

“There are a lot of things that, as a priest, you say, ‘Man, I wish it could be like this, or I wish it could be like it used to be.’ And then you say, ‘OK, it can’t be exactly the way it used to be.’ Because you do this every day, you’ve already mourned that loss,” says Reilley, a recent KLC graduate. “The process of working with the pastoral council and lay leadership is giving them that same information and helping them see where you’re coming from … and then letting them wrestle with it a little bit, letting them think about it, but also being open to their perspectives, too, because they’re going to have a different take on things. And, at times, the heat gets raised a little bit on their part.”

Even when seeing differences, there’s the chance to observe common ground. “When I go to the Spanish Mass and the Hispanic families are in church, everybody would be looking around because sometimes the kids are busy and maybe getting out of the pew and wandering around,” Fiorentino says. “You could just see the look on the faces of some of the Anglo parents, of, ‘Oh my goodness, what are they letting their kids do?’ I remind myself that, ‘Omigosh, they’re here every Sunday and they’ve got their kids here every Sunday and they are faithful people and their kids are being raised in the Catholic faith and they’re teaching them good values.’”

Still, change can be unsettling.

“At times long-term parishioners feel resentful of the new parishioners. Maybe it’s partly just people that are different. Maybe it’s some racism that they have to deal with in their own heart. Maybe it’s the financial situation, a ‘Well, we built this church and these newcomers coming in,’ and there’s a little resentment there,” Brungardt says.

His response is to stir perspective, asking, “What language did your great-grandparents speak?”

“In this part of the state, I get all kinds of answers. A lot of German, some French, some Vietnamese, Filipino and, of course, a lot of Spanish now,” he says. “My point is that in Kansas you don’t have to go back very many generations before you find ancestors who spoke a different language. … Even Irish or Welsh or English from England, sometimes those accents are pretty heavy.’’

That realization, he says, can soften and “open up hearts a little bit.”

Speaking from the heart to the heart of others can be a powerful intervention that creates the space for those grappling with change to consider a new perspective they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

“Maybe some people wouldn’t agree,” says Fiorentino, “but it really has enlightened us, because sometimes we live in our little box and we’re just doing the same old thing day after day and this has been our life, and our grandparents’ lives and our parents’ lives, so it’s a good thing to see that we have something else to learn upon, a different culture, a different way of life.”

Wrestling with loss is an important part of helping people cope with changes required to make progress on adaptive challenge. But speaking to loss often isn’t, in and of itself, enough to move people forward. Energizing others requires inspiring people to embrace the new opportunities that come with changes.

“It’s offering new life to the community, younger people, significantly younger people,” says Reilley, the Arkansas City priest, “and a lot of people who are already Catholic who are coming into this parish and want to be part of the parish. That’s a great gift in and of itself.”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit

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