Her two years in Baltimore have been the most welcome Cynthia Mendoza has felt since immigrating to the United States from Mexico about a decade ago. She credits her Catholic church in Locust Point.

Overhearing her speak to her young daughter in Spanish didn’t stop members of Our Lady of Good Counsel from inviting her to Mass, to their group of young mothers and to other ministries, she said. It helped her make friends and reinvigorate her faith after isolating years in Chicago during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The minute I came to the community, they opened their doors to me right away,” Mendoza said.

Now Our Lady of Good Counsel is recommended for closure, with parishioners shifting to nearby Holy Cross in Federal Hill.

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The Archdiocese of Baltimore is prepared to shutter roughly half of the city’s Catholic churches under a plan it is set to finalize next month. In a once overwhelmingly Catholic city, immigrants filled pews in Polish and Italian neighborhoods every Sunday. Now, churches are ever emptier, and the archdiocese says just 5,000 to 10,000 people attend Mass on any given Sunday across the 61 parishes considered in its consolidation plan, called Seek the City to Come.

Yet immigrants — now mostly from Spanish-speaking countries — still drive growth among Catholic worshippers. About one in five Baltimore-area Catholics is Hispanic, according to data from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reflective of a national trend.

Last month, speaking in Spanish, Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, the vicar of Baltimore and one of the architects of the plan, told a packed church hall that the overall dwindling number of worshippers makes the church’s current footprint “unsustainable.”

A priest wearing his black suit and white collar holds a microphone and speaks to a crowd at a podium.
Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, an author of the plan to close and reorganize Baltimore Catholic churches, addresses community members at a Spanish-language listening session last month. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

There are more funerals than baptisms at the parishes considered for reworking in the city and parts of Baltimore County, Lewandowski said. He also noted that more than half of the 850 baptisms in 2022 were at four parishes: Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of Fatima, St. Patrick’s and Our Lady of Pompei. All have Hispanic ministries.

Two other churches with Hispanic ministries, St. Clare and St. Michael the Archangel, are being eyed for closure or consolidation. St. Patrick’s, a beacon for Baltimore Latino Catholics ever since that community was tiny, also would close. So would Our Lady of Pompei.

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Lewandowski, who led all three listening sessions that the archdiocese held last month about the Seek the City plan, said it hurts the most hearing from the communities that are growing — the churches with plenty of baptisms, weddings, quinceañeras. Many parishioners told the crowd their churches were bucking the trends that Church leaders were lamenting.

From 2016 to 2020, the archdiocese estimates a 3.4% growth in the number of baptized Catholics in the Baltimore region. That same timeframe saw 17.3% growth in worshipers of Hispanic/Latino origin. Current estimates are that the Baltimore region is home to 115,000 Latino Catholics.

“We have seen an explosion of Hispanic/Latinos moving into Maryland, especially after the pandemic,” said Lia Garcia, the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s director of Hispanic ministry.

Garcia credits the growth partly to the state’s welcoming stance toward immigrants. In Maryland, recent legislation has tried to limit state contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and expand access to health insurance for people across the spectrum of documentation statuses.

A woman speaks to a group of people in a church basement.
Lia Garcia, a Hispanic community leader at the Archdiocese of Baltimore, speaks with community members from a local parish. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

About half of states in the U.S. allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Maryland is one of them, so long as the applicant shows a valid form of identification and proof of at least two years of income tax filing in the state using a taxpayer identification number.

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It’s not just Baltimore seeing growth in Hispanic Catholics. In Western Maryland, there are parishes “bursting at the seams” thanks to those worshippers, Garcia said.

In Baltimore, the archdiocese has tried to foster its growing Latino Catholic community. Lewandowski helped establish a program that issued parish ID cards to congregants who couldn’t get a state-issued ID that city agencies and local hospitals started accepting in 2018. The Catholic Review, the archdiocese’s in-house magazine, publishes in Spanish. North Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Seminary and University recently announced a Hispanic Ministry track for priests in formation.

But the plan to reorganize and close churches won’t leave the community untouched.

Highlandtown’s Sacred Heart of Jesus, where nearly the entire congregation is Latino, would absorb Our Lady of Pompei and the Hispanic ministry of St. Patrick’s under the Seek the City proposal. St. Clare would be merged into a new parish based at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. St. Michael the Archangel would be redesignated an “additional worship site” as part of a merger with Church of the Annunciation.

“We all feel like wandering sheep right now,” Leticia Garcia told the crowd when it was time for St. Clare parishioners to speak at the archdiocese’s Spanish-language listening session last month. She said many parishioners felt disappointed by the archdiocese’s proposed decision to close their church, while others expressed concern with merging into nearby Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

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“These churches are going to be receiving diverse groups of people. Will they get any training on how to work with diverse groups, including those who are multilingual?” Garcia asked. Church leadership did not offer an answer that evening.

Other communities of new immigrants would be affected. Southwest Baltimore’s Our Lady of Victory, which is slated to get folded into another parish, has a devoted and growing community of Burmese refugees, parishioner Samuel Somarriba said.

Somarriba, who is “Nicaraguan by the grace of God,” echoing the words of a popular folk song from his homeland, worries that consolidating his and nearby parish communities will have the opposite of the intended effect — it will push parishioners elsewhere and break communities apart.

Dave Bender, pastoral council president at Mount Washington’s Shrine of the Sacred Heart, said during another archdiocese listening session that Filipino immigrants make up roughly 60% of parishioners there. He and other parishioners questioned the decision to close what has become a hub for the Filipino community and whether other ethnic communities would be treated the same way.

A room full of people sit at blue cafeteria tables and look toward a projector screen for a presentation.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore held three public meetings, including one in Spanish, about its plans to close and consolidate churches. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

At the Spanish-language listening session, representatives of different parishes pitched ideas to keep more sanctuaries open and talked about how important their churches have been to Baltimore and to them personally.

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“For a lot of members of the church, the church is their home, and we’re actually talking about closing and merging their home with somebody else’s,” Lewandowski said after the meeting.

Mendoza said she is worried the changes will make it more difficult to continue worshipping. What if the plan further erodes attendance, she wondered.

While living carless in Chicago, she would take the bus to Mass. Once her daughter was born, she was often told the bus was too full for her to bring a stroller onboard and she stopped going as frequently.

“It was sad because I started to really feel that distance” from the Catholic Church, Mendoza said.

Mendoza said plenty of parishioners, particularly older ones, walk to Locust Point’s Our Lady of Good Counsel, which was the religious home of many Irish immigrants in its early years. The tiny Baltimore Immigration Museum is nearby. Across the street from the parish is a small city park, and down the road is a popular snowball shop, next to a school. It’s where Mendoza’s daughter was baptized.

Changing churches represents another move for the Mexico native; each move brings with it a sense of loss, she said.

Before the Spanish-language listening session, Lewandowski joined the group representing St. Clare in singing “Las Mañanitas” to celebrate a parishioner’s birthday. People arriving to the meeting were greeted with a plate of flautas — hand-rolled chicken taquitos — and cups of fresh fruit.

Lewandowski spoke of sacrifice and observed that many in the crowd that night had helped patch church roofs, fix leaky pipes and put in the labor to keep their sanctuaries running.

“We’re asking you … to lend a hand,” Lewandowski said, “share some of the treasure of this community, the richness of this community to help others that are falling.”

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues.

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