RELIGION

Local churches luring new, former Catholics through music

5/3/2014
BY FEDERICO MARTINEZ
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Rev. Juan Francisco Molina speaks at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Toledo.
The Rev. Juan Francisco Molina speaks at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Toledo.

To the world he is “El Rey del acordeon,” the king of the accordion. Musician Ramon Ayala's popularity continues to soar after 50 years as a performer.

But for the man born Ramon Cobarrubias, 68, he will always be the little Catholic boy from Monterrey, Mexico.

“The Catholic Church has always been very important to him,” said his manager, Frank Zuniga. “Ramon attends church every Sunday wherever he’s at. If the band arrives into a town late, he’ll get on his knees and pray." Mr. Zuniga said that Mr. Ayala's music is a gift "that he likes to use to help the Catholic Church."

Mr. Ayala and his band, Los Bravos del Norte, will perform May 11 at Central Catholic High School, 2550 Cherry St., at a benefit for Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, a predominantly Latino congregation at 738 S. Saint Clair St. Tickets are $25 and $30. 

On May 24 Mexico City-born Latina pop and gospel music star Priscila Angel, 36, will perform at 6 p.m. at Cardinal Stritch High School, 3225 Pickle Rd., Oregon. Admission is $25. Funds from her concert will be used by the Diocese of Toledo and Toledo’s Nuestra Gente Community Projects to purchase a low-wattage FM radio station for Catholic programming, said Linda Parra, president of Nuestra Gente, which has a mission to inform and educate the Latino community. 

“I was happy to be called and asked to participate to help,” said Priscila, who performs using only her first name.

Ramon Ayala and his band, Los Bravos del Norte, will perform May 11 at Central Catholic High School.
Ramon Ayala and his band, Los Bravos del Norte, will perform May 11 at Central Catholic High School.

Using popular music to lure new and former Catholics is one of several outreach strategies the Church has undertaken in recent years. “According to church studies, people have been leaving the Catholic Church because they weren’t comfortable,” said Deacon Jose Garcia, diocesan director of Hispanic pastoral ministries.

Deacon Garcia credits the  Rev. Juan Francisco Molina, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul, with re-emphasizing outreach efforts to make the church more inviting to families, especially youth and non-Catholics. Father Molina has also tried to eliminate a sometimes cold and intimidating atmosphere often associated with Catholic churches in general, resulting in part in lots of up-tempo Latin music during services.

Latina pop and gospel music star Priscila Angel
Latina pop and gospel music star Priscila Angel

Six years after Father Molina took the pastorate, Sts. Peter and Paul has grown from about 150 people to five times that membership, with more than 1,000 people attending Spanish and English Masses there, according to church records.

Deacon Garcia is a native of Matamoros, Mexico, and Father Molina is from El Salvador, where the Church plays a much more integral role in the lives of families.

“When I arrived here, Father Molina reminded me how it was in our countries,” Deacon Garcia said. “This country is not the same. He told me, 'Don't just stay in the building. Our job is to go out and help people.'" Both Deacon Garcia and Father Molina make home visits. And on the first and last Saturday of each month, families are encouraged to spend the day at the church, where parents cook breakfast and lunch and the families eat together, they participate in family activities, and in the afternoon the children play games outdoors. Beginning this month, all 160 children in the church will have an opportunity to learn how to play a musical instrument of their choosing.

Father Molina admits that playing more contemporary music during church services is intended to keep younger parishioners' attention. “I love music,” said Isaac Gonzales, 12, who prefers listening to techno electronic music when he’s not in church. “The music keeps your attention and you enjoy the service more.”

Isaac attended a recent service with his family: dad Ruben, mom Lesley, and sister Delilah, 16. Ruben Gonzales said he was raised Catholic, but his family left the church several years ago – and it wasn’t because of the music.

“We belong to a Pentecostal church,” Mr. Gonzales said. “I wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I realized that I can pray directly to God and didn’t have to wait until I went to some confession.”

“We have to change and start sharing the spirit,” Pastor Molina said. “You don’t have to be Catholic to come to my church. I don’t see them as Pentecostal or anything else; I see them as my opportunity to serve.”

The Roman Catholic Church’s reputation has been severely tarnished in recent years, including from revelations of covered up child sexual abuse crimes. Father Molina said only lots of time and proof that the Church is doing the right things can eventually restore its standing.

With healthy attendance and musical stars helping to build the Church, Father Molina said, "What’s next? Now we have the people; the problem is this is a very poor community.” His next dream is to purchase empty buildings near the church so it can offer more community services.

For more information on Mr. Ayala's concert, contact Sts. Peter and Paul Church at 419-241-5822. For more information about Priscila's concert, contact Nuestra Gente at 419-283-0581.

Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.