Father Anthony Viviano prayed a blessing and sprinkled holy water into every room.
Then came the ribbon-cutting, a litany of thank-yous, self-guided tours and hospitality.
With that, El Puente Hispanic Ministry’s new office in the former Annunciation Rectory in California was open for business.
“El Puente” is Spanish for “The Bridge.”
Sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the Diocese of Jefferson City and local parishes, El Puente is a separate, nonprofit agency offering an array of services to the Hispanic communities in and near Jefferson City and California.
“Everything we do is thanks to all of you,” Cristhia Castro, El Puente’s executive director, told board members, parishioners and volunteers at the Oct. 22 grand opening. “We can do none of this without your support and the love you have for our community.”
Annunciation Parish contributed about $25,000 to the cost of thoroughly renovating the rectory, along with a five-year lease to El Puente.
El Puente met that investment with another $40,000.
Volunteers helped with the work, which included all new windows, new plumbing and air-conditioning, new floor covering and paint, and a new sump pump in the basement.
“El Puente really stepped up with the finances and the manpower and the commitment,” said Fr. Viviano, pastor of Annunciation Parish and of St. Andrew Parish in Tipton. “It’s going to serve a lot of people.”
“Taking the initiative”
After the ribbon-cutting, Mrs. Castro placed half of the autumn-hued ribbon over the shoulders of Nena Neal, who has been serving as a bilingual social services provider for El Puente since 2004.
Program Associate Aurora Guillen spoke directly to Sister Peggy Bonnot and Sister Margaret Snyder of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who were tuned in to the ceremony by livestream.
They, along with Incarnate Word Sister Marianne Kramer, now deceased, founded El Puente in 1999 “to make present the healing love of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, promoting human dignity through a ministry of presence and outreach to the Hispanic community.”
“Sr. Peggy, Sr. Margaret — thank you for taking the initiative,” said Mrs. Guillen. “To us as members of the Hispanic community, this means a lot that somebody saw the need and took a step to start something like this that has helped so many people and will continue to do so, God willing.”
Portraits of the three founding sisters adorn the foyer of the renovated building.
Mrs. Castro said the renovation project required “a lot of volunteer hours, a lot of passion from the community.”
She lauded the Annunciation parishioners who were eager to bring life back to their rectory and see it put to good use.
Fr. Viviano lives in the rectory in Tipton.
“It was like a win-win situation for them and for us — collaborating, putting our efforts together to make this happen,” said Mrs. Castro.
She said the goal is to provide at the California office all of the educational and social services that are available at the Jefferson City location.
The programs in California will likely evolve over time, depending on local needs and whether any other agencies are helping to meet them.
“We always try to collaborate with other organizations so we’re not duplicating services,” said Mrs. Castro.
Much to offer
El Puente’s staff of four will take turns rotating between the Jefferson City and California locations until additional staff can be hired.
El Puente is currently servicing over 700 individuals in over 500 households.
With the help of volunteers and a dedicated board of directors, the staff works with various community and Church organizations to identify and satisfy Hispanic people’s material and spiritual needs.
In addition to accompanying people to doctor’s appointments and providing language-interpretation services, the staff and volunteers provide information about personal finances and high blood pressure along with nutrition classes and connect people with short-term assistance and long-term resources.
Additional help includes: education and training, English as a Second Language classes, support programs for new mothers, after school tutoring and community health advocate services.
Mrs. Neal said it’s important to have a second location in California, where a nearby food-processing plant has drawn many immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America.
“We’re here to help families in need,” Mrs. Neal stated. “Some of the people need a lot of help.”
Language can be a serious barrier when receiving good healthcare, she noted.
Mrs. Neal was serving as a bilingual hospital interpreter in Orange County, California, in 2002 when she and her husband came to Jefferson City to visit his mother.
They were hoping to raise their children closer to the children’s grandparents, who had a farm in Cole County.
Mrs. Neal happened to see a want-ad Sr. Peggy had posted for a medical interpreter for El Puente.
“I sent in my resume, she called me in for an interview, and that’s how I got started here,” Mrs. Neal recalled.
Since then, she has been present at nearly every birth in Jefferson City to parents who speak Spanish rather than English.
That, Mrs. Guillen noted, has involved “staying up all night in the hospital countless times, worrying and praying her heart out if it was a hard labor and texting her friends in the middle of the night to pray with her.”
The oldest of those babies is now in college.
“Nina’s a mom and grandmom to all of them,” Mrs. Guillen noted. “And a godmother, too.”
With God’s help
The ministry continues to grow. Mrs. Castro noted that the Jefferson City location is expanding to accommodate more services, including after-school tutoring.
She emphasized that most of El Puente’s support comes from contributions.
“We need a lot of volunteers and financial support,” she stated. “Everything we do, we do it based on donations.”
Mrs. Neal asked for prayers “for the people we help, and those that are still in need of our help”
Mrs. Castro requested prayers for El Puente staff to continue the legacy of service to the neediest with the passion and love of the Gospel.