Irish Mass, festivities part of neighborhood outreach

EAST CHICAGO – With welcoming arms like those of the inspirational St. Patrick, the East Chicago parish of the same name opened its doors on March 19 for a celebration. It is not ironic, but exciting that the primarily Hispanic parish embraced the Irish saint, according to Father Diego Florez, administrator at St. Patrick.

Father Florez, who hails from Columbia, is interested in immersing himself in Irish culture. “I’ve never been to one before,” he said of a St. Patrick’s Day festival. “I am excited to participate and share in this time with others.”

Through this event, the parish had the opportunity to build on the parish’s past and welcome the future. “We’ve had celebrations for years, but this is the first one since COVID,” said parishioner Fred Vasquez. “It is our hope to get the word out about what we do here. It doesn’t matter who you are or your nationality. We are a diverse, predominantly Spanish-speaking community. The people are very welcoming; we are all an extended family, and we want everyone to know that.”

Father Florez said the bilingual Mass includes liturgical dance in honor of St. Patrick and that he “consecrates” the altar services as a commitment to respond faithfully to God's grace in their lives. “We pray for them and all the children at the Mass,” he said.

The Columbian priest also began a Novena to St. Patrick which was scheduled to conclude on the feast day.

Connie Roque, coordinator of the celebration, said “it seems like I inherited this job” several decades ago under the direction of Father Fernando “Fred” de Cristobal. “He was the one who got it off the ground in 1998.”

Following Mass, the catered family-style Irish meal of corned beef, cabbage, fried chicken, potatoes, green beans and cake begin at noon. The Mayer Irish Dancers and men playing bagpipes are the scheduled entertainment. The parish anticipates about 110 people for the celebration.

Roque said she enjoys coordinating the event, and her favorite part is the Irish dancers because, “They bring such life to the party.” 

She recalled when parishioners were leery of having Irish dancers at the primarily Spanish-speaking parish. “At first it was not too well received,” she said. “Father Fred was really gung ho. He wanted us to embrace it. He told us, ‘You’re going to have to deal with it!’”

Now the dancers are an integral part of the tradition. “Families, especially the children, are enthusiastic about the Irish dancers,” Roque added. “They appreciate the music and the lively dance.”

“We want everyone – our parishioners and visitors – to be inspired and to know about St. Patrick, our church, and the saint,” said Vasquez. 

For example, St. Patrick used the shamrock as a simple way to teach people about the holy trinity – three persons in one God. The sign of the cross is a recollection of our baptism, Jesus’ cross, and our salvation. 

“That is what we are hoping for – to personally recognize our patron saint and how he taught people about Christianity,” he said.

Additionally, as most people know, St. Patrick was not born in Ireland, Vasquez noted. He was captured as a 16-year-old and sent to the island country as a slave, where he suffered from hunger and cold as he toiled as a shepherd. 

Following about six years of slavery and his conversion, St. Patrick became a Catholic priest. He was consecrated a bishop at the age of 43, and his greatest desire was to proclaim the “good news” back in Ireland where he converted most of the country. “Through our celebration, the people will get to know the life he lived,” Vasquez said.

“We are a quiet, faithful parish,” he continued. “We do things because they are right – we are not looking for recognition. But now we are trying to reach out more to others, to the community. We are trying to do what is right and best.”

Some of the parish’s outreach ministries include working with a food bank and providing citizenship classes for those seeking to become American citizens.

In addition to fish and shrimp options, the parish Friday fish fry dinners include enchilada and potato taco dinners. “All are welcome,” Vasquez said. “We hope they will come for the delicious meal and fellowship.”