Maryland Priest Bridges Hispanic and Anglo Communities

Hometown Heroes, Odd Jobs, People
on October 13, 2002

Wherever they’re from, people are more alike than different. At least that’s what Father Christopher W. LaBarge learned during his 13-week trip to Guatemala in 1998. And that’s the message he brought back to his parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md., whose population a few years ago was 146. It’s now more than four times that.

LaBarge visited Guatemala out of a desire to respond to his parishioners’ needs. His work, combined with the efforts of 23-year-old Santos Mendez, has led to the incorporation of 263 Hispanic families into the Marydel community.

“We were a sleepy little country town until Father Chris came,” says Marge Messner, the church secretary. “We used to be a small country church, but not anymore.”

The church—which draws members from surrounding rural areas—has tripled its size by serving its new Hispanic families, as well as 400 English-speaking parishioners—the latter number up from a few years before the church reached out to its Guatemalan friends. The church became a community center, complete with computer labs, English as a Second Language classes, and a variety of religious and secular activities.

When LaBarge arrived at Immaculate Conception in 1994, Hispanics had little to do with “Anglos” around Marydel. Many, mainly men, had come to this country to escape civil war and to find work, and affordable housing encouraged them to settle in Marydel.

Eventually, some decided to make the United States their home and sent for their families. A year after LaBarge’s arrival, the Caroline County Department of Health asked to use the church as an intake center for pregnant Hispanic women in the area, and the church opened its doors.

“I had three years of high school Spanish,” LaBarge says. “One of the translators asked me to do a baptism in Spanish for the newborns.” Soon afterward, some of the Hispanics—Mendez was one—asked LaBarge to schedule a Spanish Mass. About 125 people attended that Mass in August 1996, the first of what became regular Spanish-language services.

To improve his Spanish—and better serve his new members—LaBarge asked the diocese for permission to study in Guatemala. While there, he visited his parishioners’ friends and families.

“It helped me get a feel for the people,” LaBarge says. “They’re from mountainous regions of Guatemala, very much people of the earth. These are primarily Mayan Indians, their culture patterned along the growing cycle of corn. That’s why there’s a natural affinity for the people of this area, who are also people of the earth.”

“Father told us he was going to Guatemala to learn Spanish,” Mendez says. “I think he wanted to learn how our Guatemalan families live, to learn more about us. When he came back, his Spanish was better. He spoke a lot more.”

He also was able to serve as a forging link—with Mendez’s help—between two formerly separate communities.

Mendez came to the United States in 1993 to escape fighting in Guatemala and to help his family financially. He left behind his parents and five siblings.

After picking tomatoes in Florida, blueberries in New Jersey, and produce in Connecticut, he arrived at Marydel in 1996 and became the church’s maintenance man. But his larger role, one that came about because he was willing to do it, is serving as liaison between LaBarge and the Hispanic community.

Mendez promotes communication and sharing of cultural experience. “I have to learn what the community needs and what is the mysteria of the community,” he says. “It’s important to be a leader because you learn about different families. You learn what they need. You help them understand what church is about. You learn how important it is to live in a community and how it is to help each other.”

“We’re developing a sense of family,” says LaBarge, whose six-year stint at Immaculate Conception has just been renewed for a second term. “The Hispanics have been embraced and are a part of it. I think unity and growth are among the legacies I will leave here.”