The Hispanic community, the largest ethnic group in Oregon, swells like the waves of the ocean, and Hispanics’ Catholic faith is a driving force for the church, said Sister Juanita Villarreal, a pastoral associate at St. Alexander Parish in Cornelius.

For 30 years, Sister Juanita has provided pastoral support at different parishes in western Oregon. She has observed how the increasing presence of Hispanics has created challenges for many institutions, including the Catholic Church, which seeks to respond to Hispanics’ needs.

In the early 1990s, Sister Juanita served in Astoria. “Many of the Hispanic families there work in food packinghouses, in agriculture, in raising cattle or in the hotel and tourism services industry, having to work on weekends,” she said. “Adapting to the needs of the parishioners, the priest began offering a Mass on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Mass was offered in English, and I translated the homily into Spanish.”

According to the 2020 census, Oregon’s Hispanic population increased by 31% over 2010 while the general population grew by only 11%.

Catholics of all kinds view the growth of Hispanics as key to the future of Oregon’s Catholic Church.

Hispanics in Oregon are not a monolith. According to the Oregon Community Foundation, more than 85% identify as Mexican, 5% are of Central American origin, 5% South American or Puerto Rican and an additional 5% consider themselves “other.” Amid the differences, Hispanics are unified by Catholicism. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey indicated that almost 9 in 10 Latin Americans identify as Catholic. And now, the Catholic Church has its first Latin American pope.

The Hispanic presence in Oregon predates the arrival of modern immigrants by several centuries. Note names on the Oregon coast: Cape Blanco, Heceta Head, Cape Sebastián.

The Oregon Community Foundation notes that Latinos have a long history of contributing to the vibrant communities in Oregon, dating back to the early 1800s, when citizens of Mexico came to mine for gold and tend cattle.

The first person of Mexican origin to appear in the 1850 Census is Guadalupe de la Cruz, a 13-year-old boy living in Oregon City. The 1860 census lists 20 individuals born in Mexico, including five women.

Jesuit Father Wilfred Schoenberg in “A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest, 1743-1983,” notes there were Hispanics in the Northwest before the 1940s, but it was during World War II that labor was needed for the harvesting of crops and the first wave of migrants came to help.

During World War II, the federal Bracero program brought large numbers of Mexican farm workers to work in fields and food processing plants in Oregon and other northwestern states. After the war, families from the southwest and north of Mexico flocked to the region in search of work.

In the 1950s, a German-founded parish in Portland began offering homilies in Spanish. Benedictine Father Alcuin Heibel, who was a missionary in Mexico starting in the 1930s, became pastor of St. Joseph Parish and saw the need.

“It was thanks to him that a rapprochement between the Archdiocese of Portland and the Hispanic community began,” said Kelsey Bell, acting part-time coordinator for Hispanic ministry in the Archdiocese of Portland.

According to the 1970 census, Hispanics made up 1.9% of the population of Oregon and Washington, a number that increased to 2.7% in 1980, making them the largest minority group in the two states.

The workers and their advocates soon denounced poor sanitation and labor exploitation in the Bracero program. The laborers demanded decent living conditions and fair wages.

“The Catholic Archdiocese was involved in ministering to the spiritual needs of Mexicans in Oregon, the majority of whom were Catholic,” says “Mexicanos in Oregon: Their stories, their lives,” a 2010 book by Erlinda González-Berry and Marcela Mendoza of Oregon State University.

Starting in the 1950s, the Archdiocese of Portland recruited priests from Mexico to serve the workers. Masses, sacraments and retreats began in the Willamette Valley. Parishes like St. Luke in Woodburn began to emerge as centers of the growing Mexican American community.

In the early 1970s, former missionary Father Frank Kennard celebrated Mass with Latino immigrants in parks and in the fields since no Catholic Church in the area offered Mass in Spanish.

In 1974, using his own savings, Father Kennard purchased a building in Dayton to use as a spiritual space for Latino families. In 1978, the little community purchased an abandoned movie theater next door and made it their church, named for St. Martin de Porres. By 1983, the first building was remodeled and called Kennard Hall.

In the 1980s, residents of Central and South America fled civil war and began arriving in Oregon.

The number of Hispanics had risen to 8% of Oregon’s population by 2000. By 2010, it was 11.7 %.

The community’s Catholic influence also was growing.

In 2019, Deacon Félix García, head of the archdiocese’s Hispanic ministry, reported that about 60% of Catholics in western Oregon are Hispanic.

The Archdiocese of Portland now has 56 parishes that offer Mass and ministry in Spanish. Of those, 19 offer weekday Mass in Spanish. There are 30 priests in western Oregon who were born in Latin America and 11 Hispanic deacons. There are about 1,800 Hispanic students enrolled in the archdiocese’s Catholic schools, compared to about 13,250 others. Many leaders are trying to figure out how to bring more Hispanic students into Catholic education.

Some parishes in the archdiocese have a staffer in charge of Hispanic ministry and offer sacramental preparation in Spanish or in mixed-language classes. Parishes hold special Spanish-language Masses for quinceañeras, marking the start of womanhood. Large celebrations come for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and All Saints’ Day. These celebrations allow Hispanic families to keep traditions alive and integrate children into their parents’ culture.

Today, Oregon’s Latino population continues to grow and change. The growth suggests that the future of the state will be influenced by Hispanics’ myriad contributions to economic, creative and civic endeavors.