BRISTOL – Dr. Hosffman Ospino had a question for 300 Catholic educators: “What happened to the million?”
He was referring to a challenge by Notre Dame University in 2007 to increase the Catholic school enrollment of Hispanic and Latino children from 290,000 to 1 million within 10 years.
“Ten years have gone by,” he said at the annual Catholic Educators Faith Conference at St. Paul Catholic High School on March 29. “We went from 290,000 to 317,000, a net gain of 27,000 students. What happened to the million?”
Colombia-born Dr. Ospino is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, where he was principal investigator for the 2014 “National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry” and the 2016 “National Survey of Catholic Schools Serving Hispanic Families.” Among his findings was the startling fact that Spanish-speaking Catholic children of school age are vastly underrepresented in Catholic schools.
More than half – about 8 million – of all school-age Catholic children in the United States are Hispanic, he said. The 317,000 who are in Catholic schools represent fewer than 4 percent of that number. The combined Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholic school-age population is 15.4 million, and 1.9 million of them (more than 12 percent) are in Catholic schools, he said.
It’s not a language problem, he told the Transcript before addressing the educators. “Eighty-seven percent of Hispanics [in the U.S.] are English-speaking,” he said. “Parishes serving Hispanic Catholics in the country are about 4,500 – in this archdiocese about 25, I am told. So most of the parishes serving Hispanic Catholics are multicultural,” he said.
Only 1,488 Catholic schools – about 25 percent of all of them – identify themselves as serving Hispanic families, he said. He asked the principals of those 1,488 schools how they were serving Hispanics. Answers included offering scholarships, having a bilingual receptionist and having taco nights. Educational programs for Hispanics focused on tutoring, remedial study, in-class assistance and ESL programs. He called this a “deficit approach” to education.
“The educational process is going to go from ‘Let’s work together’ to ‘I’ll do it for you’ or ‘I’ll help you,’” he said. “Diversity is not a problem to be solved. Being Latino is not a problem to be solved. Speaking with the accent of an immigrant is not a problem to be solved.”
He later told the Transcript that staffing is important, “but also simple dynamics," such as using the language, speaking Spanish in liturgies and incorporating symbols from the Latino community and tradition. "Signage, for instance; I mean sometimes you arrive in a school and you don’t find one word in Spanish that says where the office is or ‘Welcome, Bienvenido.’”
In his talk, Dr. Ospino said Catholic school administrators have told him they visit parishes to recruit students, but many do not recruit at Hispanic ministries. “Why? Because [they] take it for granted that Hispanics are either not interested or [unable] to afford a Catholic education. And that is not true,” he said.
“A third of Latinos in the United States of America are Latinos who are entering into what’s called the emergent Catholic middle class in the United States,” he said. Most of these college-educated professionals self-identify as Catholics, he added.
Dr. Michael S. Griffin, superintendent of Catholic Schools, said that Dr. Ospino’s message challenged him to ask himself, “How can we make our schools communicate as much of a welcoming spirit as possible?” and “What bridges can we build” connecting other agencies and ministries? He said he wants to open a dialogue with others in positions of leadership within the archdiocese, including those involved in parish work, youth ministry, the Office of Faith and Culture, the diaconate program, the seminary program and others.
Patricia Devanney, principal of St. Anthony School in Winsted, said of Dr. Ospino’s talk, “It teaches us as Catholic educators to be aware of the Latino-Spanish population. He challenged us to be open and welcoming to them and to their presence.”
Maria Maynard, deputy superintendent of Catholic schools, said, “I think it was very encouraging for teachers to hear that there’s possibility to offer Catholic education. Actually, I think it’s their feeling that it’s their responsibility now. It’s like an awakening for them. They’ve heard about the Latino population, but this centered it for them, so I think they’re actually excited about trying to initiate it in their schools.”
Barbara Iorillo, a teacher of Spanish at Northwest Catholic High School, said that it’s important to realize that not all Spanish-speaking people are of the same culture, nor are they all immigrants.
“The Puerto Ricans in our country are U.S. citizens, and so I think as a Catholic Church in the United States we do have an obligation to be bilingual and to welcome the culture of the island of Puerto Rico,” she said.
“I think it’s important in each parish to understand the groups of Hispanics that are making up your parish, because if you have a large number of Puerto Ricans or Nicaraguans or Guatemalans, you’re not going to win many awards if you offer a taco dinner.”
The Catholic Educators Faith Conference gathers yearly at St. Paul Catholic High School and is a ministry of the Archdiocese of Hartford Office of Education, Evangelization and Catechesis. The two-day conference this year drew about 800 teachers and administrators, Ms. Maynard said.