When the time came for journalism undergraduate Lindsay Ruebens to write a senior thesis, she chose a subject near to her heart—Roman Catholicism in North Carolina. Interviews with Catholic leaders led her to explore Newton Grove, a small town in Sampson County with a vibrant Catholic parish. Ruebens, a practicing Catholic, engaged in participatory journalism, attending Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe, socializing with parishioners, and partaking in a procession during a feast celebration. Over the course of several weeks and through many interviews, she gained firsthand knowledge of how Newton Grove’s Catholic parish has been trying to overcome segregation and racial prejudice for the second time in sixty years. After her field work—including interviews with Catholic leaders in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh—she wrote three articles for her senior thesis. What follows is the first.

On May 31, 1953, Catholics in the tiny, rural town of Newton Grove, North Carolina, found themselves in the midst of a racial uproar. In the name of civil rights, the bishop had ordered the integration of two segregated Catholic churches that sat six hundred feet apart on the same property. White parishioners threw rocks and shouted at the blacks. When the bishop arrived, an angry mob confronted him. He didn’t back down, but mixing blacks and whites had backfired: most blacks relocated, and of those who remained very few attended the new integrated church.

Today that church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, is facing challenges posed by segregation of another kind: between Latino and white Catholics.

“Everywhere in church there is a separation between the Anglos and the Hispanics,” Mexican parishioner Hugo Figueroa says, in Spanish.

Angela Page, who is descended from the white founder of the church, agreed the division is evident. “We do have two separate communities,” Page says. What to do about it isn’t clear.

Sampson County, home to 63,431 people, has experienced significant growth in its Latino population in the past two decades. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there were 727 Latinos living in Sampson County in 1990. Now there are more than 10,440 Latinos. In Newton Grove, a farming town with an official population of 624 people, Our Lady of Guadalupe has felt the impact of immigration. About five hundred Hispanic families attend the church, and about 75 percent of the parish is Latino. With this influx comes a challenge that Catholic churches across the country are facing: how to maintain unity between the new wave of immigrants and Catholicism’s long-time Anglo members.

“On the ground, it’s one of the greatest sources of contention in the Catholic Church,” says Timothy Matovina, a University of Notre Dame theology professor who specializes in Latino Catholicism in the United States.

Matovina says people should not be quick to equate Latino Catholics with European Catholic immigrants who created their own parishes at the turn of the twentieth century. Those churches eventually dissolved as the immigrants became Americanized and assimilated into traditional American Catholicism. “It’s the same in the sense of strong ethnic solidarity, but the fact that (modern Hispanics) are moving (directly) into someone else’s church is different,” Matovina says.

In the middle of Newton Grove’s ethnic turmoil is Father Patrick Keane, a priest of Irish-Lithuanian descent and a native of Winston-Salem. Keane graduated from North Carolina State University in 1995, and he started learning Spanish in college. Today at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Keane has to speak more Spanish than English and has had to learn how to minister to people of Latino cultures.

Keane says one problem with meshing the two groups is that Latinos often don’t feel welcome in the parish. “Sometimes the Hispanics feel like they’re renting space,” he says. “They don’t feel accepted when we have activities. The food tastes are different. The culture is different.”

Figueroa, who is forty-seven and works in construction, says he’s often felt more like a visitor than a parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe. “They think the church is theirs because they built it,” he says of the whites. “But we should help each other. We need help to convince them to accept everyone, because sometimes they think the church is theirs.”

Language has proven to be a major obstacle.

Parishioner Gaby Del Rio, twenty-four, says the fact that she and younger Latinos know English has helped bridge gaps between the two communities. “(But) there’s a big barrier between older Anglos and older Hispanics,” she says.

Del Rio says she thinks issues with ethnicity are more deeply ingrained in older generations. “People my age and people who I grew up with don’t have anything close to what the older people have, as far as prejudice,” she says. “The older people and the Anglos for some reason, they don’t combine together because of old thinking.”

Because many of the Latino parishioners don’t speak English, Keane offers Masses in Spanish, which is a growing trend across the country, Matovina says. In the Diocese of Raleigh, for instance, more than half of its hundred or so parishes offer Spanish masses.

Keane says he thinks the Spanish Masses won’t be permanent fixtures in the United States. “It’s the American Catholic experience,” he says, noting that the Roman Catholic Church’s history of dissolving single-ethnicity parishes is bound to repeat itself. “So those immigration waves we’ve had in the past with the Germans, the Poles, the Irish—now it’s the Hispanics’ turn,” Keane says.

Del Rio, who was born in Mexico but now speaks English with a Southern accent, disagrees. “I don’t think it’s ever going to disappear,” she says of the Spanish Mass.

She says she has attended Masses in English but has concluded that God is not monolingual. “I didn’t understand my faith in English,” she says. “I’ve tried and I can’t understand it. It’s the same thing but totally different. And I’m not sure at times, thinking maybe I’m being boneheaded. I’ve praised God, asked God for forgiveness in English and prayed in English, but I just don’t feel it.”

The differences run deeper than the language barrier. “One of the big challenges is the differences in worship style,” Keane says.

The Newton Grove 9 a.m. Sunday Mass in English contrasts starkly with the Spanish Mass at 11:30 a.m. On a Sunday in February 2011, the average age of parishioners at the English-language Mass was over sixty. The crowd was mostly white, with a handful of black and Latino families. The liturgical responses came in a deep rumble and no one moved from their seats. All received Communion in an orderly fashion, and Mass was over in about an hour. That’s the sort of Mass that most U.S. Catholics are familiar with.

The Spanish-language Mass was vastly different. Latino families crammed into the pews, and the crowd was noticeably younger. People were chattier before Mass started and even after it began. Small children wandered up and down the aisles. The responses were loud and enthusiastic, and songs were sung without hymnals or an organist. Latinos also more strongly adhere to the Catholic doctrine that says people should not receive Communion if they are in a state of sin and are in need of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Because of this, many people remained seated during the distribution of Communion wafers.

“As a pastor you’ll always have separate communities,” Keane says, referring to people who attend Mass regularly or only on special occasions, parishioners who volunteer in various ways or those who don’t. The Latino community now fits into this reality. “Certainly my 9 o’clock crowd and my 11:30 crowd don’t know each other,” Keane says. “They don’t go to each other’s funerals, they don’t know each other—not because they don’t want to, they just have never met each other.”

But the separation seems to go deeper than that.

One point of contention between the Latinos and the Anglos are finances. Keane says the Anglos support the church monetarily more than the Latinos. The white members ran a successful capital campaign to construct and pay for buildings next to the church. The Latinos, he says, give in other ways, but the Anglos feel that they have more ownership of the new buildings because they have a larger financial stake in them.

“They donated a lot,” Keane says, “and now all of a sudden the Hispanics are coming in and ‘tearing it up,’ and so I’m always getting complaints from the Anglos about how the Hispanics treat things, that they just throw things on the ground and leave the bathrooms a mess,” Keane says.

Maria Luna, a fifty-six-year-old parishioner from Mexico, says that problems with cleanliness and damages in parish facilities have turned into a blame game between the Latinos and the Anglos. She says the Latinos have been barred from using the restrooms because of complaints from Anglo parishioners that the Latinos were damaging them. Luna denies that accusation. She says there are those in her community who make sure the church facilities are cleaned and kept up.

Father Keane acknowledged the Anglos’ frustration with the Latinos. “They feel like they’re not pulling their weight. It’s kind of like a sibling rivalry where the older child is now jealous of the younger child,” he says.

 “We need to respect each other because we’re both Catholic, but we have to know that certain things are just different here,” Keane says.

Take the feast day celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. That feast celebrates the apparition of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego in Mexico. Hundreds of Latino families in Newton Grove observed the feast with a song-filled procession full of cape-clad dancers in headdresses. There was incense, a large image of La Guadalupana, and a celebratory vibe that was distinctly Hispanic. Later, during Mass, there were several spontaneous cries of “Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” Afterward, the crowd gathered in the facility next door to eat Mexican food, socialize, and watch a children’s reenactment of the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Such a feast celebration is uncommon in traditional Catholic churches in the United States.

“It’s different; we are Mexicans,” Figueroa says. “Religion is a big part of life in Mexico.” He says that the Latinos host many events at the church, but that the Anglos aren’t interested in attending. He says that he wishes Anglos would come out to such events.

“I want them to come so they can see and give their opinion about culture,” he says. “If they come, maybe they’ll learn a little more about it—not as something that Mexicans do, but that this is about our shared religion. We’re not trying to fight about our religion.”

Angela Page, the fifty-year-old descendent of the church’s white founder, says she thinks the root of the division is cultural, which was made evident in fundraising for the capital campaign.

“I think it’s because of the food and the music and just the different approach they have to raising money,” Page says. She says some people have a negative view—likely one that will continue—that the Latinos have made things worse. “Some people are never going to change and never going to embrace cultural differences,” Page says.


In Raleigh, to broaden the minds of the faithful, a push for integration between Latinos and Anglos has become a top priority, which is outlined in Bishop Michael Burbidge’s three-year pastoral plan.

Increasing numbers of Latinos have caused the diocese to focus on Hispanic ministries: In 2000, there were about 400,000 Latinos in North Carolina. Ten years later, the population had doubled.

Ricardo Veloz, a Hispanic Ministries youth coordinator for the Diocese of Raleigh, says the main issue is assimilation versus integration. Veloz says the Anglos want the Latino Catholic culture to assimilate into traditional American Catholic culture, but that the diocese is aiming for more of a coming together with respect for cultural differences.

He used the analogy of a salad to explain the diocese’s rationale. A salad has tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and so on. Each ingredient is enjoyed for its own sake, but each is part of the salad, he says. “If you put everything in a blender, you lose the identity (of each vegetable),” he says. “This is what we don’t want to lose—our identity as Hispanics.”

Veloz, who works regularly with Latino youth, says finding an identity as a Latino and a Catholic in the United States is difficult. “The people are suffering, especially the young people,” Veloz says. They feel ostracized. “They are always, every day, identity-seekers.”

The process of integration, he says, shouldn’t be one-sided. For integration to be successful, Anglos and Latinos must work together. He acknowledged that such an integration of cultures will be a long process. “It will take generations,” he says. “It’s not going to be tomorrow.”

To start the process, the diocese offers large-scale, bilingual workshops at different parishes. In addition to promoting Spanish Masses, the Diocese of Raleigh also offers doctrinal training, parenting programs, youth groups, retreats, and leadership training through its Hispanic ministries. What the result of all this might look like is still unclear. But one outcome could be participation in each other’s celebrations and Masses.

In Newton Grove, Page, thinks some progress between the two groups is taking place. “I don’t think that people are reaching out enough, but they are trying more than they ever have,” she says. Appreciation for another culture is more important, and more necessary, than acceptance, Page says.

In 1953, Bishop Waters integrated Newton Grove’s parish to make a statement about racial injustice. Today, Page views it as a solution. “I think as the families become integrated (through) marriage, we’re going to see more people embracing each other culturally,” she says. “But we ought to start embracing what is great from any culture, whatever it might be.”

Lindsay Ruebens graduated in May 2011 with a bachelor’s degree from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.