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Driven by Latinos, Catholic Population Surges in Marin

According to U.S. Census data, the number of Catholics in Marin jumped 80 percent from 2000 to 2010, a trend that has been felt primarily by the St. Raphael in San Rafael and Our Lady of Loretto parishes in Novato.

While the Catholic Church's election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis last month sparked plenty of excitement among Catholics in Marin, one thing is clear: the new Pope has a much larger congregation in Marin than any of his predecessors.

According to U.S. Census data, the number of Marin residents identifying as adherent Catholics rose a whopping 80 percent between 2000 to 2010, from 42,163 in 2000 to 77,114 in 2010. The surge has been driven by a rise in the Latino population in San Rafael and Novato, particularly at St. Raphael in San Rafael and Our Lady of Loretto in Novato, according to their respective pastors. In fact, the Spanish language mass is the largest at each of those churches, the pastors say.

Our Lady of Loretto Pastor Rev. Honesto Gile said the number of people he sees each Sunday dwarfs those who are registered with the parish, with more than 1,500 coming to mass each Sunday.

“It just keeps growing,” he said.

The number of Marin residents identifying themselves as adherent Catholics is at its highest since the 1950s, and although Marin’s population has climbed over the past 60 years, the percentage of Marin residents identifying as Catholics is also at its highest point since the 1950s. For instance, while the 30,625 Catholics represented 35.8 percent of Marin’s population in 1952, its 77,114 Catholics make up 30.6 percent of the total population in 2010.

(To see details in the infographic above, drag your cursor over each line in the graphic.)

That trend correlates to the rise in the Latino population overall in Marin, from 27,351 in 2000, or 11.1 percent of the total population, to 39,069 in 2010, or 15.5 percent of the population in Marin. Both of those percentages are up dramatically from 4.2 percent of the population in 1980.

Rev. William McCain, who was the pastor at Our Lady of Loretto for 13 years before heading to St. Finn Barr in San Francisco in June 2012, said he watched his congregation swell right before his eyes.

“It grew exponentially,” McCain said. “The Spanish language mass is by far the largest single mass at the parish,” regularly drawing as many as 500 people.

The surge, McCain said, has helped make up for a drop in the non-Hispanic membership of the church.

Gile, who took over for McCain last summer, said the Spanish-language mass has grown even more since McCain’s departure, forcing the parish to open up the choir loft to accommodate another 100 people or so.

Further south at St. Raphael, Rev. John Balleza said he’s witnessed the surge of Catholics in just the two years he’s been in Marin. He said the majority of San Rafael’s new Catholics have been moving to Marin from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, but there are also smaller segments of the population from Haiti, Vietnam, Brazil, Fiji and other countries.

Three years ago, Balleza’s church added a second Spanish mass on Sundays because the first mass — in a church that holds 850 people — was too full.

Now, both the Sunday Spanish masses are “beyond full,” Balleza said. 

“My concern is — ‘how are we going to continue to accommodate them?’ We are the biggest parish in this area that offers any kind of ministry that’s Spanish speaking,” he said.

As the number of immigrants has increased at the San Rafael parish, it has changed the focus of some of St. Raphael’s services, Balleza said.

“It’s an incredibly drastic jump and we have experienced that here with the need to address their issues and concerns,” he said. 

For example, last month St. Raphael’s hosted a clinic with agencies including Legal Aid of Marin and the Canal Alliance to provide free legal advice for immigrants.

“If you are under the notion of the church, there are no boundaries,” he said. “Every church you to go you are welcome. They come here and they have a home.”

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than two-thirds of the 52 million-plus Latinos in the U.S. are Catholics, though it is expected to drop to half by 2030 as Latinos gravitate to evangelical Protestant congregations, Time magazine reported.

The Catholic surge isn’t being felt throughout Marin however. In Mill Valley, Rev. Pat Michaels, pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church downtown, said more people claim to be adherent Catholics than those who actually show up to Mass on Sunday.

“We’re not seeing that kind of increase,” Michaels said. “People may claim a denomination, but they don’t claim it by being there.”

Mill Valley in particular has a low Catholic turnout, with only about six percent of residents attending services regularly, he said.

Michaels said he hopes Pope Francis will be able to bring some new energy into Catholicism. Where former Pope Benedict XVI was more of an academic, Pope Francis “has clearly invested himself in pastoral work,” Michaels said, and that hands-on, charismatic approach may be exactly what the Catholic Church needs right now.

“That kind of thing does attract people,” Michaels said. “It seems like a very positive beginning.”

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