Bringing the gifts of the Church to Maine’s Hispanic community

Milka Alay watched with joy as Father Michael Sevigny, OFM Cap., gently poured holy water on her daughter Sylkia’s head, baptizing her in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

“It’s a great blessing,” she says.

Sylkia, age 8, also received the sacraments of confirmation and first Communion, as did her 9-year-old brother Jesús.

“I am very blessed and grateful for the sacraments of baptism and confirmation for my kids,” Milka says. “We all believe that it is very special for them to have the life of the Holy Spirit to guide them.”

For this special day in her children’s lives, Milka and her family traveled from their home in Waldoboro to St. Agnes Church in Pittsfield. While there are Catholic churches closer to the Mid-coast community where she lives, for Milka, the 70-mile trip was worth it, because it gave her the opportunity to listen to the Mass and the words of the sacraments in Spanish, her native language.

Milka, who is originally from Puerto Rico, is among about 20 members of the Hispanic community who regularly gather at St. Agnes Church on Friday mornings for faith formation and Mass. The group started small, meeting outside on the lawn last summer, but as word has spread, the numbers have steadily increased. Some, like Milka, travel for miles to be there. Others, like Sandra and Daniel Martinez, live locally.

“Speaking our natural and original language, it’s easier to communicate. We don’t feel intimidated,” says Sandra Martinez, who is originally from Puerto Rico but has lived in Maine for 13 years. “It gives us a feeling of back home. We have at least somebody who understands a little bit more of our traditions and stuff like that.”

“I feel more blessed that we have the father and that the Hispanic community can be together. On Fridays, it’s getting bigger, little by little,” says Daniel.

Father Sevigny became director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry in November 2020, succeeding Sister Patricia Pora, RSM, who guided the ministry for 15 years and remains active as a volunteer. Serving with them are outreach coordinators Rosario Starratt and José Pérez Lopéz.

Building upon the work of Sister Patricia, Father Sevigny says his emphasis this first year has been to connect with members of the Hispanic community and to try to ensure they have the opportunity to fully participate in the sacramental life of the Church.

“Attending to their catechetical needs, their sacramental needs, it has really become very clear that I need to be attentive to that,” he says.

With the assistance of Father Frank Morin, a priest of the Diocese of Portland who is retired from active ministry, Father Sevigny has been able to increase the number of Masses celebrated in Spanish. In addition to the Friday Mass in Pittsfield, Masses are celebrated every weekend in Brewer, Lewiston, Portland, and Waterville; biweekly on Sunday evenings in Sanford; and monthly on Sunday afternoons in the Down East community of Cherryfield. Last summer, he even celebrated Mass in some garages in Turner to serve dairy farm workers there.

“We wanted…above all to bring the love of Christ to each one through the celebration of Eucharist and sacraments in their own language since having celebrations in Spanish is very important, especially for those who are learning a new language,” says José. “As a Hispanic ministry, we have had many approaches, but one of the most important is to bring them the presence of the Church as the presence of Christ where they are.”

Father Sevigny, José, and Rosario have also increased opportunities for faith formation and sacramental preparation for both children and adults, seeking to assist members of the community in becoming more engaged with their local parishes.

“It’s a deepening of the understanding of the life of the Church,” says Father Sevigny. “I’m trying to instill in them some vibrancy for the faith and just kind of renewing their commitment to the faith. For me, it’s a catechetical process. One of my favorite things to do is catechesis.  I just have a good time doing that.”

“I just think the more we get together, the more we do gatherings like this, it’s a positive thing and not for only ourselves spiritually,” says Sandra. “I think we take that advice as much as we can, the word of the Lord, and we try to guide others who can’t be present at the moment.”

Because the Hispanic population is so spread out in Maine, there is a lot of time spent on the road for members of the Hispanic Ministry team.

“Right now, I’m putting between 800 to 1,000 miles on my car every week,” says Father Sevigny. “We’re covering a lot of ground for three people.”

“We are so blessed to have Father Michael. He is traveling anyplace. That is so important,” says Rosario, who often accompanies Father Sevigny and assists him at Mass.

Despite the many miles covered and their willingness to hit the road, Father Sevigny, Rosario, and José recognize the impossibility of being regularly present in the many communities where Hispanics live. That is why Father Sevigny is seeking to establish teams of Spanish-speaking lay leaders at parishes around the state.

“We are focused on creating teams of people who are connected to the parish or the church so that they can become outreach personnel for us, and we can then depend on them to help those who are preparing to receive the sacraments, help them get initiated in the parish life,” Father Sevigny says. “This whole year is going to be focused on catechetical formation for different communities, so they can be present and keep us informed as to what the needs are in their community.”

“We have some people we know could be good leaders, so we are starting to prepare them to be leaders,” says Rosario. “They will be the contact in their own places to meet other ones, because you know, many people don’t know about the Diocese of Portland’s Hispanic Ministry.”

Currently, they are working to identify leaders and form teams in Lewiston, Norway, Pittsfield, and Portland.

“This is going to be a whole year process because it’s training, and it’s catechetical,” says Father Sevigny.

It is hoped the establishment of those teams will also raise parish awareness of the presence of Hispanics in Maine. Because the Hispanic population may not be very large in any single city or town outside of Portland, Rosario says it’s easy for members of the community to go unnoticed.

“The Hispanic community, they always have faith, but many of them, they move to other churches. Why? Because Catholic churches don’t know they have a Hispanic community,” she says.

“Parishes don’t identify their presence because they are spread out. That would be true in Turner. Some of the people have been working on the farms for a long time, and yet, they’re not known in the parish because they haven’t gone to register or anything,” says Father Sevigny.

The language barrier is an obstacle, as are work schedules. Jobs on farms or in the hospitality industry often mean working weekends and nights, making it difficult for some members of the Hispanic community to regularly attend Mass.

Despite the challenges, Father Sevigny, José, and Rosario say they are already seeing the fruits of their labors.

“I can see now that they grow in faith. They worry about their children. They ask for sacraments,” says Rosario. “They are now more involved in the Church.”

“More and more, people are hearing about the ministry. We’re constantly getting more people calling in and asking for the sacraments,” says Father Sevigny. “The attendance at Mass also, it’s been really good.”

With a Hispanic population estimated at more than 24,000 in Maine, Father Sevigny, Rosario, and José stress the importance of having an active Office of Hispanic Ministry.

“The population of Hispanics is growing, especially in this state where we have a lot of places where they can find a job, especially dairy farms, egg farms, and also the seasonal work, different jobs like the blueberry fields,” says Rosario.

Although she describes the office’s efforts as “very slow work,” Rosario says it is nonetheless rewarding because she believes it to be God’s will.

“I am so grateful because I know this job is a call from God. That is very important for me because I know I am doing what He wants,” she says. “As a Catholic woman who tries to live her faith, this is so important for me. I am serving God, so it means a lot for me. It’s part of my life.”

Rosario is originally from Peru but married a man who was an American and moved to Lewiston 13 years ago.  She soon became a reader at the Mass celebrated in Spanish at the Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Lewiston. It was then that Sister Patricia approached her about a position with the Office of Hispanic Ministry.

Rosario says she brings to the job her deep faith, an understanding of Spanish culture, the ability to speak Spanish, which is her native language, and an understanding of the challenges faced when settling in a new country.

“I have the experience, as someone who came to the United States, of trying to find someone like you who you could identify with,” she says.

José also understands those challenges. He emigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 2001, settling in the city of Portland, where he became a member of Sacred Heart / St. Dominic Parish.  He participates at Mass as a reader, an altar server, and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. He also serves as a catechist, as a member of the parish’s Finance Committee, and as a member of the Pastoral Council for the Portland Peninsula & Island Parishes. He joined the Office of Hispanic Ministry part-time in 2014 and became a full-time outreach coordinator last year.

“I wanted to work in the Hispanic ministry because there was a great need in the ministry and Latino community, and I wanted to continue my journey in faith and parish life, something I started in my home country,” he says.

Most of José’s work is centered around Sacred Heart Church in Portland, where the ministry recently established a new office to increase visibility and community access. “Sacred Heart is the home of the largest Latino Catholic community in Maine, and here is where we do more activities. Therefore, there are more needs to attend to, especially sacraments of initiation,” says José.  “We seek to have a more accessible place where we can meet people to meet their needs.”

A new office will also soon be opening in Lewiston.

Father Sevigny says Bishop Robert Deeley and the Diocese of Portland have been fully supportive of him and the ministry since he arrived in May 2020.

“The bishop was very concerned that members of the Hispanic community would be attended to,” says Father Sevigny. “His desire was to really build up this ministry so their needs would be met.”

Coming to Maine was a homecoming for Father Sevigny.  Originally from Sanford, he was ordained in 1978 as a priest for the St. Mary Province of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in White Plains, N.Y. The Capuchins, who follow the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, are especially known for their preaching and their missionary work.

Soon after ordination, Father Sevigny says he was assigned to a Spanish-speaking parish in New York City’s Lower East Side, but he soon realized he could not fully serve the community because he was not proficient in Spanish.

“Being there a few months, I realized that I can’t really function here because I don’t know enough Spanish, so I went away to Guatemala for six months, and then, I spent time after that in Honduras, covering for some of the priests, so they could come to the states for vacations and family visits. I did that several times in my summers, going back and forth to Honduras,” he says.

He would then spend a summer attending a language school in Bolivia.

With that training, the help and patience of parishioners, and the experience of speaking Spanish daily, his mastery of the language improved.

Father Sevigny spent about 25 years at parishes in New York City and also served for a year at St. Joseph Parish in Portland in the 1980s and at parishes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Just prior to coming to Maine, he served as a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, both in Boston.

He says he had already been seeking to return to Maine when he learned that the Diocese of Portland was seeking a new director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry. He says the bishop and the diocese have been extremely welcoming.

“The bishop has been very supportive and very open. I am very pleased,” he says. “It’s been a blessing all around. I’m very happy to be working here in the diocese. It’s been great.”

Members of the Hispanic community say they, too, have reason to be happy, because they have someone like Father Sevigny serving them.

“For me, God gave me the blessing to bring the father down here,” says Daniel.

“He’s very heartwarming. He opens his heart and gives us guidance,” says Sandra. "It’s more than a blessing for us. It’s like a miracle that God gave us at least a little angel.