|Father Richard Gagnon, S.D.S., right, the former director of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Nashville, and the former pastor at St. Luke Church in Smyrna and St. William Church in Shelbyville, has retired. He will be succeeded as the pastor at St. William by Father Louis Rojas, left. Photo by Andy Telli
When Father Richard Gagnon, S.D.S., came to the Diocese of Nashville in 1991 to serve as director of Hispanic ministry, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were 13,000 Hispanics living in Middle Tennessee.
“That was more than enough anyway,” for Father Gagnon to take care of, he said.
As he leaves the Diocese of Nashville to begin his retirement in Milwaukee, the Hispanic population in Middle Tennessee has ballooned to more than 145,000, about 11 times larger than when he started. And that doesn’t count all the people who don’t participate in the census, Father Gagnon said.
The growth of the Hispanic population in the Nashville diocese is part of a national trend in the United States, where the American Church is becoming more Hispanic. The diocese will need a Hispanic ministry to provide pastoral care to Spanish speakers for a long time, Father Gangon said.
Father Gagnon, who also served as pastor of St. Luke Church in Smyrna for 21 years and as pastor of St. William Church in Shelbyville for the last two-and-a-half years, left Tennessee last week to move to a retirement home in Milwaukee, Wisc., operated by his order.
During the first 25 years of his priesthood, Father Gagnon had served in several parishes with large numbers of Latinos, including several in Texas near the Mexican border. It was there that he became fluent in Spanish.
In 1991, Bishop James Niedergeses invited him to come to Nashville to lead Hispanic ministry and serve as pastor of St. Luke. The major migration of Hispanics to the area began a few years after he arrived in Middle Tennessee.
|Father Richard Gagnon, former director of the Diocese of Nashville’s Hispanic Ministry program, sprinkles holy water while blessing palms outside of Holy Rosary Church in Donelson in this file photo from 2000. The Hispanic population in Middle Tennessee has grown more than ten-fold since Father Gagnon arrived in Nashville in 1991. Tennessee Register file photo by Rick Musacchio
The diocese’s Hispanic ministry got a huge boost from the Diocese of Parral, Mexico, Father Gagnon said.
Father Lorenzo Martinez was a priest from Parral who was working with Hispanic ministry in Nashville, Father Gagnon recalled. Father Martinez invited his bishop to visit Nashville. The bishop was surprised to see so many Latinos living here and agreed to send more priests and religious sisters from his diocese here to provide pastoral care to the Hispanic community.
Hispanics started flocking to the new Mexican priests and sisters, Father Gagnon said. “They understood the culture and the language, so the people naturally went to them for spiritual help,” he said. “Why would they go to anyone else?”
As the Latino population continues to grow, so does the need for more priests who speak Spanish and can provide pastoal care to migrants from Central and South America, said Father Gagnon.
“They need more pastoral care, more pastoral attention,” said Father Louis Rojas, who came to the Nashville Diocese in 2008 to work with the Hispanic ministry office and is now replacing Father Gagnon as pastor of St. William. “We’re in need of priests who can speak Spanish.”
Some help should be coming from several of the diocese’s seminarians who speak Spanish. “We pray that they make it through and become priests,” Father Rojas said.
The current wave of immigrants coming into the American church is different than the European immigrants that came in earlier centuries, Father Gagnon said.
“Most Catholic Americans are expecting them to follow the same path as their ancestors did in coming here,” Father Gagnon said. “But because of the differences in language, culture and even appearance, it’s harder to assimilate.
“The first migration that came from Europe couldn’t go back. They were here to stay,” Father Gagnon added. But many Hispanic immigrants travel back and forth between the United States and their country of origin, he said.
Father Gagnon doesn’t think Hispanic ministry’s first priority should be to help new immigrants assimilate into American culture. “Do you want to bring them closer to the Lord or do you want to Americanize them? Do they want to become Americanized and can they?” he said.
“I don’t see anything in Church documents about changing their ethnicity,” he said. St. John Paul II stated clearly that the Church should let migrants develop their faith in the context of where they started, Father Gagnon said, and the people have the freedom to change if they want.
‘An interesting life’
Father Gagnon, 81, grew up in Philadelphia. He began to discern a vocation to the priesthood because “religion meant a lot to me, also the goal of religion: eternal happiness,” he said. “That was a way I could serve others.”
Father Gagnon was interested in becoming a missionary and contacted the Salvatorians after reading about them in Our Sunday Visitor. He studied at a Salvatorian seminary in Michigan and the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., before being ordained on June 5, 1965.
Before coming to Nashville, he served as a teacher in New Jersey and Indiana, before working in parishes in Texas, California, Nevada and Florida. He was able to serve as a missionary, but in the home missions, he said.
“Nothing went the way we thought it would,” Father Gagnon said. “There’s no sense having any plans because you can’t predict what will happen in life. The Lord said don’t worry about tomorrow. Live (one) day at a time, because you may not see tomorrow.
“You’re always adapting,” he said. “You have to adapt until you can’t adapt and that means you’re dead,” he said with a chuckle.
“It’s an interesting life,” Father Gagnon said. “I’ve been very happy about the whole thing.”