The people Jesus spoke about

Maria, Reina de las Americas, Mt. Olive

The small but colorful church of Maria, Reina de las Americas (Mary, Queen of the Americas), the newest parish in the Diocese of Raleigh, is, to make full use of both words, simply beautiful. Behind the 9-foot-high front door, framed in green, gold and blue tile and a red façade, the gold-sided structure rises in sections so that the highest part of the roof is over the altar. The building was dedicated in 1999, but Mass was first celebrated for its entirely Hispanic community ten years earlier.

Fr. John Williams was pastor of Immaculate Conception in Clinton in 1989. “The Carolina Turkey processing plant was recruiting workers from Mexico and Guatemala,” he recalls, “and they had provided a 40-family mobile home park near the plant for employees.” In the early days, Fr. Williams celebrated Mass in the trailers or outdoors. In 1992, a general manager at the turkey plant (His aunt was nun.) gave the new community permission to share a hunter’s shack on the grounds when the weather was inclement. The building still stands, and would be the mission’s center for seven years. In a December 1994 article in the NC Catholic newspaper, Fr. Williams described the community’s first Christmas midnight Mass in what was called the Casita, the “little house”:

“The scene was filthy and grim beyond the telling. No cleaning and no decorating could be done. Then a key was lost, and there was a failure of communication, and the leader who was to have gotten it all together departed. When I arrived, the congregation was outside in the bitter cold, waiting. Nothing was set up. Not a flower, not a sprig of greenery.

“An ancient tape recorder got jammed mysteriously, and as pitiful as this tool was for Christmas instrumental music, it never functioned. There were conflicting ways of singing Adeste Fideles in Spanish, and this opening hymn bombed incredibly. A primitive gas space heater could never be started.

“More things went wrong than I could write about. Then, just before the sermon, it came to me in a flash that the ingredients of this totally improbable situation almost exactly mirrored the nativity of Jesus… In our own place, we were being given the privilege of experiencing the poverty of Bethlehem.”

Things would get better. Sister Joan Jurski’s “Young Neighbors in Action” volunteers repaired and painted the building, which was eventually given to the community now known as Posada Guadalupana. In 1999, the new church, designed by a Mexican architect to capture the same sense of sacred space immigrants had been used to “at home,” rose on ground donated by the owners of Carolina Turkey. Construction was funded by a loan and a gift from the diocese, as well as a gift from the Catholic Extension Society.

Fr. Edgar Sepulveda, a native of Colombia and formerly Parochial Vicar of St. Mary, Mt. Olive, began ministering to Posada three years ago, and was installed in August as the first pastor of the new parish. He describes his flock as “poor economically, but rich in talents, faith and love for God and the Church, and wealthy in service.” The parish has no hired staff; everything from cleaning to repairs to mowing the grass is the work of volunteers.

Fr. Edgar describes a rapidly growing immigrant community, with the pastoral and material challenges that growth implies. The parish has no rectory and, despite 40-plus weddings and more than 100 First Communions a year, no parish hall. The pastor acknowledges that construction is expensive, but says, “I’m not worried so much about that. I hope the people of the Diocese will pray for us, and I believe God will give us what we need to do His work.”

That work, according to Fr. Edgar, is to be a supportive, evangelizing community. “We want to spread the mission of the charismatic renewal, and the joy of the Holy Spirit, throughout the Diocese,” he says. “And we want to support each other materially and spiritually, like a family, especially since many of our members are separated from their natural families in other countries.” Many non-Catholic churches try to fill this role, he says, by offering food and assistance to immigrants, “but we also have the Bread of life.”

“I think,” Fr. Edgar concludes, “I have never worked among more humble people, and that is a great happiness. When Jesus spoke about humble people, I think He was speaking about people like these.”

- Rich Reece