By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

A fixture in the community for more than 35 years, the Hispanic Apostolate has witnessed significant growth in the past few years because of the rising number of immigrants entering the Baton Rouge area.

But even with the increase in activity,  the role of the agency has never changed from its humble beginnings at a lone desk in the parish office building at St. George Church in Baton Rouge. The apostolate continues to provide spiritual guidance, help immigrants resettle into their community, provide educational and financial resources undocumented people have limited accessibility to obtain and provide counsel or simply a person to talk to in order to help individuals and families grapple with the loneliness of being alone in an unfamiliar country and culture.

Perhaps most important, “they need a place to call home,” former apostolate executive director Maria Rosa Eads said.

And the Hispanic Apostolate is a story that needs to be told. Because of the constant influx of new members to the Hispanic community, many are unfamiliar with its history, so Eads and Dilla Martinez collaborated on a recently released book “Hispanic Memoir (1983-2018)” celebrating 35 years of serving others.

Eads said she and Martinez began discussing the idea of a book several years ago, although actual work did not begin until  2018 with the goal of having it completed in time for the apostolate’s 35th anniversary this past October. Challenges delayed publication, but the book was released during a recent ceremony at the apostolate office located at the site of the old St. Pius X Church in north Baton Rouge.

“There was no one to tell the story,” Eads said. ”We decided it became a need for us, for the people to know what the apostolate is and how much the apostolate has grown and what it has done for the past 35 years.

“The community needs to know it.”

“We love the apostolate so much, and we always said you cannot love something you don’t know,” she added.

The book, which Eads calls “a labor of love,” recalls how Bishop Stanley J. Ott recognized the fledging apostolate as an institution of the Diocese of Baton Rouge on Oct 9, 1983. Father David Vavasseur, then pastor at St. George Church, was appointed part-time chaplain and provided a desk in the parish office.

From St. George, the apostolate moved to what had previously been the Catholic Deaf Center on Florida Boulevard, also in Baton Rouge, before settling at St. Pius when the church parish was clustered with St. Isidore the Farmer Church in Baton Rouge.

Having a permanent home is important, Eads said, because it allows the apostolate to schedule events without having to work around previously scheduled events at another church. Included in the annual events held at St. Pius are a stunning Passion Play reenactment on Good Friday and a procession of the Blessed Virgin followed by a Mass and dinner celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The Hispanic Apostolate also sponsors the successful annual Latin Festival.

“We have a come a long way not just in facilities but having someone to tend to them,” Eads said, giving a nod to chaplain Father Robert Halter CSsR. “It keeps changing but always for the better, trying to help the community the best way we can. The community has a place it can call its own.”

She said the book, which is printed in English and Spanish, is important to help dispel many of the misconceptions about the apostolate’s mission and how it began. She explained Hispanic community members have made significant contributions to the faith life of the diocese in a number of ways, which are detailed in the book, and more globally to the community in general through time, talent and resources.

“(The book) accurately recounts the rapid numeric growth of the  Spanish-speaking Catholic community members in and around Baton Rouge and  points to how their faith has been cherished and nourished,” said Hispanic Apostolate executive director Julia Scarnato. “It also  provides an overview of how the (apostolate) has taken into account  the  cultural  diversity of the  many  Central and  South American  countries represented in its numbers.

“It has given witness to the universality of the Catholic Church professing one Lord, one faith and one baptism,” she said.

Scarnato said the fundamental value reflected in the book, which she called a gift of the Lord,  is the basic belief in the value of human life. She noted the story is told of a small group of people who assumed leadership roles in order to express their faith in their native language.

“Some believed that the task could be carried to completion, whereas others doubted that it could  ever come to be a reality,” she said. “It was once again discovered that with  God all things are possible, in and with  Jesus the Lord.” 

Scarnato commended Eads and others who had the desire to leave behind a witness to future generations regarding what needed to be done to keep the Hispanic community alive and united in love supported by the bishops and priests.

“It shows us all that the task of the Gospel is not easy and never ends,” she said.

Eads also expressed her gratitude to the diocese.

“We have a bishop (Bishop Michael G. Duca) that is supportive of the Hispanic community and (Bishop Emeritus Robert W. Muench) was very, very open to us and very helpful,” she said. “They see the need and that the need keeps growing.”

To obtain a copy of “Historic Memoir (1983-2018),” call the Hispanic Apostolate at 225-927-8700.