People gather for a Mass at Our Lady Queen of the Americas Parish in Washington.
CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN People gather for a Mass at Our Lady Queen of the Americas Parish in Washington.
In 1967, the Capilla Latina, which means “little Latin chapel” in Spanish, opened as a mission to serve the growing immigrant community in Washington. Nearly 20 years later, in 1986, the mission became Our Lady Queen of the Americas Parish and was named the official Hispanic parish for the Archdiocese of Washington.

The parish is located in a building that used to house Mackin Catholic High School, with the sanctuary located on the second floor. In classrooms along a nearby hallway, classes in English as a second language are offered by the Washington English Center throughout the week. The parish now has three Masses on Sunday in Spanish and one Saturday evening in English.

After becoming a parish, the chapel was turned into a church during a large renovation that extended the sanctuary, and led to the discovery of stained glass windows on the left-hand side that had previously been covered by a wall.

On May 14, Cardinal Donald Wuerl the 50th anniversary of the Capilla Latina with a special Mass at the parish. Before the anniversary Mass, the cardinal blessed a new project to get an updated elevator in the building, since their current elevator does not fit a wheelchair and makes it difficult for some elderly parishioners to get to Mass.

“Nothing breaks my heart more than seeing the sacrifices of some of the older people trying to climb the stairs. …[They] have to have a lot of passion and love for the Lord,” said Juan Guzman, a member of the parish’s financial committee. The elevator project, he said, is his generation’s way of doing something helpful for the parish community.

Guzman has been a parishioner for 20 years, and now his 7- and 9-year-old sons also attend the parish with him. He called the religious education that they receive there “top of the line,” noting how teenagers who have received Confirmation frequently return to help out with the program.

Even though he lives in Arlington, Guzman makes the trip into Washington to attend Our Lady Queen of the Americas because of how welcome the parish has made him feel “ever since day one.”

“The importance that Our Lady Queen of the Americas gives to every person; they’ll make you feel like you’re the top priority,” said Guzman. “They make you feel that you want to serve; you want to be part of the community.”

Mariana León has been a parishioner for 41 years, and has seen several generations come and go through the parish. Before the Washington English Center held classes in the building, León remembers attending English classes taught by Carmelite nuns and seminarians.

“They were learning English and at the same time praying in their own language,” said Father Alejandro Díaz, who became the parish administrator in January.

León is originally from Nicaragua, and doesn’t have family in the Washington area, so she said the parish has become like her family. She serves as an usher because she thinks it is “very important to greet people, make them feel welcome and make them feel at home.”

“One of the beautiful things over here, I would say, is most people in the parish don’t live around here, but they are faithful to their parish,” said Father Diaz. “They remember that it was their first parish, and the beginning of the Spanish community.”

When the parish first began, many of its parishioners had just arrived from other countries and were working low-paying jobs or were unemployed.  The employment office at the Spanish Catholic Center would often help people at the parish find jobs, and parishioners would collect clothes and give them to the center, where they were distributed to people in need.

“They want to be faithful to the place that received them…opened the doors for them,” said Father Diaz, who is originally from Colombia. “As an immigrant, there is a big gratitude for that.”

The parish played an important role in providing meals to people who were hungry, and this tradition of sharing meals at the parish has stayed alive, with four different groups of parishioners who rotate cooking food for the congregation every weekend. The groups are organized by the type of food that they cook, such as Salvadoran or Mexican cuisine.

The parish celebrates the heritage of its parishioners through a variety of special events. On Good Friday, the parish holds a Via Crucis, or “Way of the Cross,” procession, like those that are prevalent in Latin America, where a large group of people walk from their parish to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, carrying crosses, icons, and a clear, full sized casket with a model of the body of Jesus inside.

They also host an Our Lady of Guadalupe festival, where mariachi musicians sing to honor the Blessed Virgin, and the Mexican community of the parish cooks different kinds of tamales.

“They feel like in that moment, they are living in their country,” said Damaris Rivas, the parish secretary, who is originally from El Salvador.

At the end of October, they host the festival of Señor de Los Milagros, or “Lord of Miracles,” which celebrates a mural of Christ that survived many earthquakes in Peru that otherwise caused wide destruction. Many people visit the mural in Peru and attribute miracles to it. On the third floor of Our Lady Queen of the Americas, there is a small room with a replica of the mural where people can pray.

Each year, about 1,500 people come from different states and from other local parishes to attend the parish’s festival, and the parish’s Peruvian community cooks Peruvian food for all of the guests.

In addition to their cultural significance, Guzman said the festivals are a great way to bring family together. He said he is happy when he sees grandparents, parents, and children all squeezed together in one pew.

“That is my joy - a family teaching their child a love of the Lord Jesus Christ.,” he said. “…That is what we are all looking for: for our future generation to be full of the love of the Lord. That’s our goal.”