Celebrating Diversity

It's noon on a bright Sunday in April, and sunlight is streaming through the colored stained glass windows of St. Anthony's Church on Milwaukee's south side. The peals of bells tolling in the blonde brick bell tower mingle with the strains of an organ inside the church's decadently Gothic interior. Architecturally and artistically, St. Anthony's is a typical example of a church founded by German immigrants in the 1800s.

Then, from the rear of the church, the priest speaks.

"Bienvenidos," he says. "Este es el dia de nuestro Señor."

At St. Anthony's, his Spanish greeting — "Welcome. This is the day of our Lord" — may just have easily have been in English or Vietnamese, because the church celebrates Mass in these three languages.

St. Anthony's, 1711 S. 9th St., is just one of the approximately 15 parishes within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that celebrate Mass in languages other than English. Most of the non-English Masses are in Spanish, but others are celebrated in Vietnamese, Hmong, Korean, Croatian and Polish. Together, they represent the ethnic and cultural patchwork of Milwaukee's Catholic community.

Celebrating Mass in non-English languages is nothing new, according to Kathleen Hohl, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

"Many of our parishes were created with ethnic groups in mind," Hohl said. She pointed out that The Basilica of St. Josaphat, 2333 S. 6th St., was recently of special importance for Milwaukeeans of Polish descent because they could mourn Polish Pope John Paul II, in a church built by Polish immigrants.

These days, the language of Mass celebration is determined by individual parishes on a "supply and demand" basis, Hohl said.

"They base it on their respective communities," she said. "Where we have pockets of ethnic groups, there's a need for services in their native languages."

One trend that appears to be new, however, is the need for Masses in Hmong, the language of some Southeast Asian peoples, Hohl said. The increase of Southeast Asian immigrants in Southeastern Milwaukee has created a need for Hmong-language Masses that parishes are beginning to fill. Many parishes in Milwaukee, as well as Fond du Lac and Sheboygan, celebrate a Hmong-language Mass once a month to accommodate Hmong-speaking parishioners.

"Perhaps it's not to the point where it needs to be celebrated every week, but communities are starting to recognize the need," Hohl said.

Masses celebrated in Polish and Croatian appear to be the oldest foreign-language Masses in Milwaukee. Sacred Heart Croatian Church, 917 N. 49th St., has been celebrating Mass in Croatian for most of its history.

When asked exactly how long the parish had been celebrating Masses in Croatian, Fr. Paul Maslach, the parish priest, responded: "God almighty, since before I can remember."

Masses in non-English languages report high attendance citywide. The St. Anthony's Mass in Spanish was full beyond capacity, for instance, and the Croatian Masses at Sacred Heart Croatian are attended by about 200 people every week, Maslach said.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on April 14 2005.