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OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE, THE PEOPLE’S PARISH

The pews are filled with family and friends, anxiously awaiting the christening of the newest member of their congregation. Fr. Vincent H. Finnerty, CM, the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Charlotte, NC, gently pours the baptismal water over the head of the congregation’s soon-to-be parishioner. It is a joyous occasion, a celebration of love, life, and faith in a vibrant Catholic community of worshippers, who find their spiritual guidance from a group of Vincentians.

It’s no secret that Our Lady of Guadalupe parish is greatly loved by countless people. At a time when there is concern about the dwindling number of Catholics attending Mass regularly, Our Lady of Guadalupe has the opposite concern—not having enough space for its 4,000 parishioners.

Fr. Finnerty leads this congregation of devotees, a mostly immigrant population from Central and South America—Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, and Puerto Rico. He is a soft-spoken man who cares deeply for his flock, who are, in many ways, his family.

His apostolic journey began after spending seven years in Panama and nine in Mexico. In 1995, he arrived in the Diocese of Charlotte as the director of Hispanic Ministry. Officially assigned to a parish in Greensboro, NC, he started visiting churches throughout the Diocese and noticed that while many offered Spanish Masses, few were caring for the Hispanic community, many of whom were poor immigrants. They needed a spiritual home and basic necessities. And like the saint whose name he bears, Fr. Finnerty saw a very real need among his flock and sought ways to fill it. This was the spark that ignited the development of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. By 2002, the new parish officially opened.

Fr. Finnerty is clear to note that this is the people’s parish. The Diocese funded the building of the Catechetical Center, but the parishioners financed it. And like the congregation, the structure is simple; there is nothing affluent about it. Every day it teems with life and activity from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Most of the congregants, who have relocated; know firsthand that it’s not easy to leave one’s home, family, community and language. But they have traveled thousands of miles, seeking a new life in the United States, hoping for better lives for themselves and their families.

“Their lives were threatened; they were surrounded by lawlessness,” Fr. Finnerty states. “They struggled to keep their families together.”

At Our Lady of Guadalupe, they discover a sense of community, of family, of hope. “If they have a question or problem, they come here,” explains Fr. Finnerty. “They’re looking for priests who understand what it is to be poor.”

And the Vincentians do understand. Their lives are built on walking with the poor as their brothers and sisters—and their actions are a direct response to their congregation’s many needs.

SIMPLE, YET FULFILLING

The Center uses movable partitions to create rooms for the services offered, including meal preparation and food distribution, counseling, medical care, legal aid, assistance paying rent and bills, and even exercise classes for single mothers. Of course, the Center is also used for Masses—six every Sunday—as well as Catechism classes.

Every year, more than 1,000 youth learn the faith in Catechism classes, held four days a week at the Center. Frequently, because the space is occupied by the Center’s services, the classes are held in the hallway or kitchen. “We need space, more space,” Fr. Finnerty laments. And now, these parishioners, who have so little, are saving their money to build a church adjacent to the Center.

When Fr. Finnerty hears anyone say that the Center is like a social service agency, he quickly replies, “It’s Vincentian—charity and evangelizing. The two go together.” The thousands of people who come here can attest to that. “They’re accepted here,” he says, “They help each other out. And they know that [the Vincentians] will do whatever we can to help them. They look to us and depend on us.”

The Vincentians and Our Lady of Guadalupe are providing a second home—albeit, one not quite large enough—to thousands of the poorest and most marginalized peoples. As Fr. Finnerty poignantly notes, “Their lives are quiet and hidden from the mainstream of society. That’s where a Vincentian should be.”

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