Oldest Portuguese church in N America in peril

By Ray Henry
Associated Press Writer / December 24, 2009

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NEW BEDFORD, Mass.—For more than a century, George Ladino's family has gone to St. John the Baptist Church -- the oldest Catholic parish for Portuguese immigrants in North America -- to see his children married, his neighbors buried and his grandchildren baptized.

Unless the parish can turn itself around, Ladino may be among the last generations of Portuguese-Americans to worship in the parish of his immigrant ancestors. Roman Catholic Bishop George Coleman of Fall River says he may close St. John's and merge it with a nearby church unless it can increase its members, raise money and fix its building.

Shuttering the parish is unthinkable to Ladino, whose name is inscribed on a church plaque honoring Portuguese-American veterans from World War II.

"It's the break up of a family," he said. "We must keep this parish going because our ancestors worked so hard to start this parish."

St. John the Baptist is the mother church in a region of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island that has more people claiming Portuguese ancestry than anywhere else in the country.

The flood of immigrants began in the 19th century when ships from New Bedford stopped at the Portuguese Azore Islands to pick up supplies and sailors during their hunts for lucrative whale oil, used as a lubricant and lighting fuel. Enough of those Azorean whalers had resettled in New Bedford that in 1868 the bishop of Boston asked for a Portuguese-speaking priest to tend the growing flock.

Three years later, St. John the Baptist became the first church created for the Portuguese immigrants and their children at a time when Catholic parishes served as social service centers and places to find jobs and their clergy offered encouragement for homesick immigrants.

An original wooden church burned in 1908, prompting the congregation to start building the current granite sanctuary in 1909. In a nod to its historic importance, Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva visited the parish in 1994 while he was prime minister.

In its heyday, finding a seat on Holy Days could be a challenge.

"Midnight Mass at Christmas, if you didn't come at least 45 minutes before Mass time, you wouldn't get a seat because all the pews were taken," Ladino said. "After that, you'd have standing room only. We were more vibrant at the time."

In recent days, a church built to hold 900 people sees far fewer worshippers in its pews. The total attendance on Sunday for both Portuguese and English-language Masses is about 450 to 500 people, church officials said.

Its heritage remains even if attendance is down.

Before a recent Mass, an elderly widow dressed in black prayed on her knees, while an older man lit a votive candle in front of a statue of Santo Cristo -- a popular Azorean devotion that depicts Jesus after being whipped, bloodied by a crown of thorns and humiliated by Roman soldiers.

The statue, carried in procession by parish members on the Feast of St. John the Baptist in June, is perhaps an apt devotion for immigrants who once toiled on dangerous whaling ships and in grim textile mills before their children got a toehold into business and politics.

The Rev. John Oliveira, the current pastor, doubts Portuguese immigrants will ever arrive in the United States in numbers rivaling even 15 years ago. Poverty, stagnation and repression during the regime of Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled from 1932 to 1968, kept immigrants headed for America.

"Poverty gives you a lot of courage to do things you might not do if you weren't poor," Oliveira said.

But the fall of the dictatorship, the establishment of a democratic state in Portugal and integration into Europe's economy have slowed the tide, hurting the parish. Like in other churches, the economic recession has lowered charitable giving, Oliveira said.

Meanwhile, the century old building needs about $1.5 million to fix its leaking roof, make its facilities handicapped accessible and complete other repairs. Bishop Coleman said in a written statement that he will give the parish until sometime in 2011 to show it can increase its Mass attendance, create a plan to repay its debt and launch a fundraising campaign for major repairs.

Oliveira said the bishop's goal is to strengthen St. John's. One method could be by combining it with Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish less than a mile away, where Oliveira also is pastor.

"It just is never possible sometimes to sustain some things," he said.

The church was built to serve families whose multiple generations once lived within walking distance. But success in America has meant more mobility. Many Portuguese-Americans have moved to nearby suburbs or taken jobs outside New Bedford, which suffers from 14.1 percent unemployment.

"We've lost so many parishioners due to death and people moving out of the city, it's very hard to keep it going," said church member Debbie Coelho, whose father immigrated from Portugal. The 42-year-old woman was baptized and married at the church, and she now brings her son Zachary, 12.

"He's been here since Day One as well," she said.

Parish member Marge Ferreira, whose parents came from the Portuguese-speaking Cape Verde islands off Africa, said she wants to meet the parish's challenges. Still, the 70-year-old acknowledged the problems are significant.

"People have moved out," she said. "Generations have gone. The people who originally started it, their children have moved away from the area."