The secret to 25 years of success for the Langley Park Catholic Community may lie in what might be huge disadvantages anywhere else. It’s a mission congregation in one of the state’s poorest, most densely populated neighborhoods. It has no formal parish structure, no church building or classrooms and relies on volunteers for almost every function.

Yet the immigrants of the Langley Park community in Maryland — with its institutional roots at nearby St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring and the ongoing collaboration of its parishioners and the Franciscan friars — have built a thriving, reverent, multinational family of faith that functions even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They don’t have a church, they ARE the church,” explained Franciscan Father Erick Lopez, who served as the primary minister to Langley Park for six years until 2019. 

In fact, he said, “it’s the things they have to go through to celebrate Mass that bring people together.” 

Since its founding in 1995, the community has rented space at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School on Sundays. That means each Sunday volunteer crews put out chairs for an early Mass, bringing in the altar, candles, ambo and music equipment. Afterwards, they quickly reset it for religious education classes that are held in the gym and a few other school spaces. After classes end, they again prepare the room for Mass. Once the morning’s two Masses and religious education classes are over, the crews return the gym to its normal condition. Each week — pre-pandemic — 800 to 900 people joined Masses at McCormick Elementary.

“Everyone takes ownership of something,” explained Sister Cathy McConnell, a sister of the Humility of Mary who served the Langley Park community from 1999 to 2007. “They turn a gym into a place of worship.”

In a 2019 photo, Franciscan Father Chris Posch, then the pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, joins the Langley Park Catholic Community at a Mass where three members portrayed the Magi adoring the baby Jesus. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Masses for the Langley Park Catholic Community were held for hundreds of people each week at the gym of McCormick Elementary School. (Photos by Mayra Mejia)

“Langley Park works because it it’s not institutional,” she added. “People feel an obligation, a sense of ownership in being there. “‘If I don’t go, the candles won’t be in place,’” she gave as an example of the commitment she heard regularly there.

Members describe their connection to and love of the Langley Park Catholic Community in terms that are deeply personal and reverential.

“My mom used to walk and pray the rosary, walking around our apartment complex,” said Maria Guadalupe Rodriguez, whose mother, Amada Guerrero Gamez, was a revered anchor of the Langley Park community. She died in May 2020 of a long-term illness. When the family discovered the Catholic community, the prayer habit she’d practiced in Mexico and carried to her new home led to two of the beloved traditions of Langley Park and St. Camillus — Las Posadas and an early-morning celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“It’s home for people like me — immigrants,” said Leonel Selvin Lopez, a Guatemalan who arrived in the United States 16 years ago and landed in Langley Park, where he lives with three cousins and an uncle. “It serves people in many ways, helping with their problems, building their faith, finding friendship.”

He was drawn after feeling unfulfilled in a Protestant congregation. “God showed me the way within six months of when I got here,” he said. 

Selvin has gone on to be involved in many activities and ministries, including the annual creation of an “alfombra” each Good Friday on the St. Camillus grounds. The carpetlike works of art made of colored sawdust and rice are key to traditional Guatemalan Lenten processions. A fellow Langley Park resident from the same part of Quetzaltenango as Selvin initiated that project. 

Each Holy Week before the pandemic, crowds of people including members of the Langley Park Catholic Community participated in the annual Via Crucis, a Way of the Cross and re-enactment of Christ's passion that wound from Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Takoma Park to St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring. The above photo from the 2018 Via Crucis shows the “alfombra” on the St. Camillus grounds, carpetlike works of art made of colored sawdust and rice that part of  Guatemalan Lenten processions. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann) 

After seeing how some of his neighbors struggle with prayer in Spanish, Selvin also created a regular liturgy of the Word service in a Guatemalan indigenous language, Mam. 

The Mam liturgy for the time being takes place over Zoom. With no gatherings allowed at the McCormick School, Langley Park Catholics make up a majority of the three limited-seating Masses that are partially or entirely in Spanish at St. Camillus. Most everything else happens on Zoom.

Even amid the pandemic, remaining active is what makes the community, “home for everybody. Everyone is invited. It is the home of the Lord and you are welcome,” Selvin said.

The Langley Park Catholic Community was formed in 1995 in response to three “T” factors, described by Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, current St. Camillus pastor who returned to the parish this summer after last being assigned there in the early 1990s. “Transportation, treasure and time” were in short supply, he said.

Langley Park’s dominant population in the early 1990s was refugees from El Salvador who fled that country’s civil war, Father Jordan said. With high unemployment, few people had either transportation or the money to afford it to enable them to participate at St. Camillus, he explained. With the prodding of a Langley Park teen, Juan de la Cruz Turcios, who craved a faith community, Father Jordan and fellow Franciscan Father Jud Weiksnar decided the solution was “we go to them.”

The friars arranged to rent space at the school and walked the neighborhoods, inviting people to Mass. As word got out, community members began evangelizing door to door. One of the leaders at 17, De la Cruz started Esperanza Latina, a youth group that continues to thrive. (De la Cruz eventually became a Franciscan friar.)

Before long, Carmelite Sisters Amaya Duralde and Carmen Banegas, arrived and started catechism classes out of an apartment being rented as an office. Other programs followed: English classes, social services, legal services, computer training, sewing classes, a food pantry, coat drives, school supply collections, summer camps and summer lunch programs. There are a variety of faith groups, including charismatic prayer groups, the rosary-focused Guadalupanos, and a choir.

Amid the restrictions and job losses of the pandemic, the Langley Park office manager, Mayra Mejia said the greatest demands have been for help applying for food stamps, getting medical care, food and assistance with rent, and learning how to use Zoom to participate in faith groups.

“Most of them are not eligible for unemployment or government assistance,” Mejia said. St. Camillus has a food pantry and can provide some small financial assistance, but Mejia said many people are referred to Catholic Charities. 

The office in a Langley Park apartment remains closed, but Mejia was hoping it might reopen in February. 

In a photo from May 2020, Franciscan Father Chris Posch, then the pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, shows a family where they can get food being distributed that day by members of the Maryland National Guard to assist people in the Langley Park community impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn. Father Posch died on July 5. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Sandra Perez, a Secular Franciscan and St. Camillus parish secretary, currently leads the Langley Park religious education program. She first became acquainted with the community as a Guatemalan immigrant who sought help to file paperwork and prepare for her citizenship exam. 

Beginning in 2012 Perez began working with the volunteer catechists who prepare children and adults to receive their sacraments. Even with the limitations of the pandemic, there are 275 children, youth and adults enrolled this year, down a bit from the 325 the previous year, Perez said. About 40 catechists and assistants teach, all on Zoom since the beginning of the 2020 fall term.

“It’s been working out wonderfully,” Perez said, even with the limitations of no-cost Zoom access — 40 minutes per session.

And there are plenty of less formal ways the Langley Park community supports each other. Selvin’s phone call with the Catholic Standard was delayed by a day because he’d spent the previous evening in a service he has provided regularly, and all too often because of the pandemic. He was scraping together the funds and assisting a grieving family to make arrangements for a deceased relative’s body to be returned to Guatemala. 

It’s the sort of help the Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants who make up the majority in the densely populated community would have provided to their neighbors in their home countries. Part of what makes it feel like family, several of them said, is that their customs of hospitality, worship and faith are encouraged and adopted even by those who may come from far different cultures.

The welcome given to others’ customs brought faith traditions that have taken root in the sliver of central Maryland, located just inside the Beltway, adjacent to Silver Spring and Hyattsville. 

For example, if not for pandemic restrictions, mid-December would have seen hundreds of Langley Park people rising hours before dawn to sing hymns and “Las Mananitas” to observe the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Camillus Church. A few evenings later, families would have bundled up for eight nights of processions through the Langley Park neighborhood. In Las Posadas, participants sing and knock on doors to “seek shelter” for pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph.

Another tradition nurtured by the immigrants is the annual Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, procession, common in Hispanic cultures around the world. Long a joint effort of St. Camillus and nearby Our Lady of Sorrows parishes, the Via Crucis each Good Friday snakes for three miles through neighborhoods and along the major thoroughfares of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. Thousands of people participate. 

The event culminates at St. Camillus, where the actors portraying Jesus and his disciples ultimately process through the “alfombra,” painstakingly crafted by Selvin and other Guatemalans.

People pray during a Dec. 2, 2020 Mass at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, celebrated by the pastor, Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, that marked the 40th anniversary of the murder of four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador. During the pandemic, many of the faithful attending Spanish-language Masses at St. Camillus are from the nearby Langley Park Catholic Community. (CS photos/Andrew Biraj)

Father Lopez, who is now a part of the staff of the Franciscans’ Interprovincial Novitiate in Santa Barbara, California, said the traditions and the Langley Park community atmosphere “recreate a little of how they lived in their home countries. Especially the youth, they find this and feel welcome. People who are so far from home and family come there and find a connection.”

Besides the cultural commonality, Father Lopez said what appeals to many is “the profound respect for their beliefs,” that people experience in Langley Park.

“There are so many things that make that place special,” he said, describing how a snowstorm one Saturday night played out. “There was seven to eight inches of snow.” Masses were canceled at churches throughout the archdiocese.

But at McCormick Elementary, where the school district’s snowplows would not appear until the next day, early on Sunday, “20 or 30 people appeared with snow shovels and brooms to clear it. Then another 20 or 30 came to bring donuts and coffee for them.” 

When he arrived to celebrate Mass, knowing many would arrive no matter the weather, Father Lopez said, “there were maybe 300 people there. The human contact and interaction with each other is very important in Langley Park.”

(A video about the Langley Park Catholic Community can be found at https://stcamilluschurch.org/langley-park .)