Only 2 percent of Episcopalians are Latino. At St. John's, they're the future

The Rev. Elizabeth Montes, right, of St. John's Episcopal Church in downtown Wichita, holds a book for Deacon Arland Wallace to do a reading Sunday morning at an English-Spanish service.
The Rev. Elizabeth Montes, right, of St. John's Episcopal Church in downtown Wichita, holds a book for Deacon Arland Wallace to do a reading Sunday morning at an English-Spanish service. Correspondent

The Rev. Elizabeth Montes says some people aren’t sure what to do with her.

She’s a woman, Hispanic, 4 foot 11 inches and rector of the oldest Episcopal church in Wichita.

She’s the first Hispanic woman to serve as head of a major church in the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, and she has begun transforming St. John’s Episcopal Church by reaching out to Wichita’s Hispanic communities.

“I think the future is the Hispanic population coming and being part of our churches,” Montes said. “There’s a big hole there before they feel invited and included and welcomed by everyone.”

Only about 2 percent of Episcopalians are Latino, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2009, the Episcopal Church issued a strategic vision saying that while the church as a whole is declining in membership, “the dramatic increase in the numbers of Latinos/Hispanics in communities throughout the country should be seen as an evangelistic opportunity and hope for the church.”

The road to fully incorporating Hispanics in the life of the Episcopal Church hasn’t been easy, Montes said. She remembers the days when she and others would joke about how “that will be the day when an Episcopal church will have a Spanish Mass.”

Yet on Sunday, prayers at St. John’s were said in both English and Spanish. After singing the doxology in English, the congregation began singing the lyrics, “Santo, santo, santo es el Señor, Dios del universe.”

Afterward, people spoke with Montes, known to her parishioners as “Mother Eli,” in both English and Spanish.

Montes came to Wichita in 2013 to work as a chaplain for Saint Francis Community Services. On the weekends, she filled in when other churches needed a priest or spent Sundays at St. John’s.

She had done Hispanic missions before, but felt that the denomination wasn’t ready to fully embrace Spanish-speaking members. Churches had been excited about outreach to Latinos before, but ended up backing away once faced with the reality of dealing with an unfamiliar culture and language, she said.

“It’s very different,” Montes said. “You’re bringing new people, new traditions, new everything. You had to be very open in order to do that.”

In 2015, she was persuaded to start a Spanish language service Sunday afternoons at St. John’s.

Bob Guenthner, who has attended the church since the 1980s, said for a while it felt like there were two different churches: One that spoke English and met Sunday mornings and one that spoke Spanish and met Sunday afternoons.

That changed when the church brought Montes on as rector (the parish priest) in October 2017, Guenthner said.

“This is not your father’s church,” Guenthner said. “It has changed a lot from the 80s, lost a lot of members. It’s been painful. Mother Eli has brought a new life. Even though we are small in numbers and finances, we are still dedicated to a life of service.”

For Mayra Ocampo, the Spanish services were a chance to worship in her own language. Until high school, Ocampo had always attended Spanish-language Catholic Mass. She later drifted away, then was married in St. John’s. She and her husband attended St. John’s occasionally, she said, but “something felt foreign about it,” particularly saying prayers in English.

When Montes started the Spanish-language service, Ocampo and her mother, who is originally from Mexico, were there. They have attended ever since.

“It feels like family,” said Maria Ocampo, Mayra Ocampo’s mother.

When she started the Spanish-language service, Montes was adamant that it shouldn’t be a separate entity from the rest of the church. When she became rector, she started having regular joint services — like the one that happens several times a year, especially around major holidays — and church events. She’s constantly surprising her parishioners, like when she suggested salsa lessons for a Cinco de Mayo celebration.

“The (Episcopal) Church is coming around slowly,” Montes said. “They see the need. It’s just that in the past people have not been trained. Even if they’re in a community with a lot of Hispanic people, they don’t know what to do.”

The Spanish-language services at St. John’s are still small, usually ranging from six to 12 people, but parishioners hope for growth.

Shirley Orr, who leads lay members of the church, said the Episcopal Church can feel like home for people, including Hispanics, who have left the Catholic Church but want a familiar service.

There have been growing pains as the church changes, Orr said, but there is also progress.

“I feel like we’re on the verge of something really big,” she said.

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @kathsburgess