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Multilingual Mass the New Norm for Some Milwaukee Catholics


The days of the Catholic Mass in Latin are pretty much over.

Some Catholics still worship in the old style, but most pray in their native languages. In the U.S., some parishes even offer multilingual, multicultural Masses to bring together various communities.

To learn how this impacts the connections people have to their faith and each other, Lake Effect’s Amy Kiley visited a local Catholic church comprised largely of immigrants.

Parishioners of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Milwaukee worship in six languages. When they say the Lord’s Prayer during the all-parish Mass, they speak those languages at the same time.

Listen to the congregation of St. Michael’s saying the "Our Father" prayer in six languages.

To believers, such a linguistic cacophony might bring to mind the story of the Church’s birth at Pentecost. That’s when the Bible says the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples of Jesus and inspired them to preach in the languages of everyone listening.

The colloquial Greek of those early Christians survived in the Kyrie, a prayer for God’s mercy. Otherwise, Latin became the official language of the Catholic Church, and worship became monolingual.

St. Michael’s reflects how the use of language has evolved in the U.S. Catholic Church. Founded in the 19th century, the parish’s first language of worship was Latin. In the 1960's, Catholic leaders declared the faithful could celebrate Mass in their native languages. That’s around the time Maria Sommerhauer came to St. Michael’s from Germany. She was 29-years-old and alone in a new country.

"When I came here, they said there was a German Mass," she says. "It’s just [like] if you went abroad, and you could have a Mass in English. It just sort of comes from your heart."

Sommerhauer remembers when Sunday attendance at St. Michael’s dwindled to about 50 people. Milwaukee’s German roots were fading. St. Michael’s was about to close.

"Then the Hispanics came around, and then the Hmong came around," Sommerhauer says. "And, they had gone to other churches that said, 'We can’t handle these languages,' so they sent them away. And, they came to St. Michael’s – and then the church was full."

One person who helped fill the church was Mayhoua Moua, an ethnic Hmong from Laos. Her people came to Wisconsin in large numbers after helping the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Moua was seven at that time, but it wasn’t until 1991 that she and her husband joined St. Michael’s. She says she loves attending Mass in both English and Hmong.

"To understand it in both languages helps me understand myself more fully and practice my faith and to be able to continue to pass that on to my children," she says.

The diversity of St. Michael’s reflects that of the modern U.S. and its Catholics. Census data show Asians are the fastest growing demographic group, outpacing even Hispanics. To accommodate Catholic immigrants, the U.S. bishops have released a document called “Guidelines for Intercultural Competence in Ministry."

They’ve also called for “unity in diversity” during worship. Now, numerous American parishes hold multilingual, multicultural Masses.

St. Michael’s has regular services in Spanish and English with an all-parish Mass once a month. 

"Especially on Sunday mornings, to be able to worship in diverse languages helps people understand that we are all one family," Moua says. "No matter where we come from, what languages we speak or what cultures we say we are from, here at St. Michael’s, everybody just seem[s] to be one big family."

Just as the German-Americans of St. Michaels welcomed the Hmong, Lao and Hispanics – those immigrants are now welcoming ethic Karen and Karenni refugees from Myanmar. Moua’s husband, Zong Cheng, says the parish offers the gift of empathy to refugees.

"We had the same experience," he says. "So, we don’t know where to turn to. We don’t know where the helps are. We don’t know where to go, but now we’ve been through that, so we can at least show them: this is what you need to survive in this culture, this new land and new country."

The Mouas run a consulting firm that provides language services and cultural insight. Their three adult children are native English speakers, but they still pray in Hmong.

Parishes like St. Michael’s could become the norm in the U.S. Experts predict minorities will be the majority here by 2043. Perhaps that will bring the U.S. Catholic Church full circle. Perhaps, soon, more parishes will sound like St. Michael’s – and the disciples at Pentecost. 

The music we heard at the beginning of Amy’s piece is from Anonymous 4. It’s "Ave Maria O Auctrix Vite" from 12th-century composer and nun Hildegard von Bingen (translation here).