This article first appeared in the May 25, 1997 issue of The Living Church.
By Scott Robinson
“It happened a few years ago in the summer,” began the Rev. William Teska, recalling the origins of the Mision el Santo Niño Jesus, a Latino congregation in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. The story began with his colleague, the Rev. Vincent Schwahn, vicar of Santo Niño.
“At that time Fr. Vincent was the priest down at Prairie Island, on the reservation. A little girl died of a congenital condition, and the family had Hispanic as well as traditional Indian roots. They wanted to have a funeral that included a pipe-bearer, or traditional shaman, as well as a priest, and they couldn’t find a Roman Catholic parish that would do it. But our retired Canon Dick Smith said, ‘Well, I can think of a place that would do it.’ He called up Vincent and basically offered the use of the church.”
That church was the Episcopal Church of St. Paul on the Hill, in St. Paul, Minn., of which Fr. Teska is the rector.
This parish has shared its facilities with the Santo Nino congregation ever since.
The family felt so welcomed, continued Fr. Teska, “that after it was all over, they said to Vincent, ‘Well, why couldn’t we do this all the time? Why couldn’t we start a church?’”
Which is what they did. And like the kingdom of heaven in the parable of the mustard seed, it has grown from a small beginning – a planting in the ground – into a rapidly-growing tree.
“They could not find other churches to receive them,” Fr. Schwahn explained, “and we opened our door to them, and we had over 300 people in the church that day…. And I figured, if we can in one day fill the church, then we should be able to have some kind of vital Hispanic ministry.”
Hispanic ministry is nothing new to Fr. Schwahn. “I’ve been interested in Hispanic ministry since the first time I visited Latin America in 1978,” he said. “I went to Guatemala to visit a [Roman Catholic] mission. It was a life-changing experience for me. I had grown up in the Midwest, and I didn’t know that was literally another world beyond our borders.
Fr. Schwahn began studying Spanish, eventually leaving the Roman Catholic St. Paul Seminary in 1984 to concentrate on language training while sorting out personal questions about his vocation. He started working with Hispanic congregations, leading three summers of migrant work with a Mexican priest in North Dakota’s Red River Valley, and a stint with the Catholic Worker organization in East Los Angeles.
Feeling sheltered after his return to Minnesota, he moved to Mexico for three years, where he had the opportunity to apply his seven years of theological training to filling a need for an instructor in an Episcopal seminary. He was received into the Anglican Church of Mexico and finally ordained as a priest.
The people of El Santo Nino, who come from predominantly Roman Catholic background, have had little trouble with Episcopal acculturation. “The liturgy to begin with is very similar anyway,” Teska explained. “We use the Book of Common Prayer translated into Spanish, and we attempt to draw the worshippers more and more into the liturgy as participants. But church is church; it looks the same, it smells the same, and most people are quite happy with being Anglican.
Another custom associated as strongly with the Anglo-Catholic tradition as the “bells and smells” of the worship service is a vigorous program of social service, which harks back to the working-class roots of the high church movement.
“The social mission of St. Paul’s, as with any parish, is evolving,” said Fr. Teska. “We are an urban parish, and the demographic landscape of the city is changing. The identity of this parish in the future, I believe, is to be a welcoming to a more diverse congregation, to reflect more the population of the city. The social mythology of the Episcopal Church as being the church of the upper class is not really true anymore, and thank God for that.”
The Santo Niño congregation is an “exploratory member” of the St. Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations, SPEAC, of which St. Paul’s is a charter member. SPEAC is a consortium devoted to “congregationally based organizing,” which Fr. Teska defines as “organizing at the grassroots to gain political power sufficient to effect changes in the interest of the people.” The alliance operates out of a consensus of values pertaining to city life, with respect to such issues as racism and economic and social justice.
“One of SPEAC’s first projects,” Fr. Teska said, was to get about $30 million worth of commitment from banks for loan money for certain neighborhoods in St. Paul.” He said another issue was when a large grocery store moved to the neighborhood. “We felt that they hadn’t been living up to their commitments in terms of hiring locally,” he said, “so we organized about that. And the organizing is often uncomfortable to some because the more powerful it is, the more it appears to be demanding. And, of course, people who have the power and want to do it their way regard this as a kind of impertinence, but that’s politics. When poor and powerless people behave in ways that actually draw attention, successfully, to what they want to accomplish, people are surprised – this isn’t the way the game is supposed to be played. ‘You’re supposed to come to us and ask us nicely.’ And we do that. But you can ask nicely all you like, and unless you have power behind it, all you’re going to achieve is what’s in the interest of the people who are handing down the favors.”
Santo Niño’s social outreach extends to the Latino community at large, irrespective of membership in the congregation itself. “We are seen by many as a parish that is here to serve the needs of the Latino community in general,” Fr. Schwahn said.
“We work very strongly with most social service agencies that work with Hispanics, so I frequently get phone calls from social workers, psychologists, doctors, medical technicians, who have some kind of need… that they identify as spiritual, and ask for my assistance.” These needs include emergency counseling, working with families dealing with HIV/AIDS, and other kinds of social service both within and without the mission itself.
Another important aspect of Santo Nino’s social mission is its social life. “A Hispanic parish is a very social parish,” Fr. Schwahn said, “And part of the culture is the celebrating of life activities, be it sacramental events in one’s life, or religious events during the year. The whole idea of fiesta and celebrating life’s activities with a party is really an essential part of Latin culture.” These celebrations include religious observances like the Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead” – known as “All Souls’ Day” in English – and cultural celebrations like a Cinco de Mayo dance.
Though the congregation is of predominantly Mexican origin, it includes worships from all over Latin America. The two congregations, although they co-exist with the relative autonomy of roommates, make a point of worshipping together. “All of the major religious celebrations are celebrated as one community, which I think is really important,” Fr. Schwahn said.
Fr. Teska is also enthusiastic about the vitality of the mission within his parish building. “It seemed to all of us,” he recalled, “that when the opportunity arose to incubate a Spanish-speaking Episcopal church, that this was really a call from God.”
La Mision el Santo Niño Jesus continues as a congregation of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, now sharing space with a Lutheran congregation. It had 180 baptized members in 2020. The diocese also now has Latino ministries in two other congregations, in Richfield and Mankato. Saint Paul’s on the Hill closed in 2015.