TAMPA — The faithful wore sarees, mantillas, rain coats and red, white and blue sashes held together with American flag pins.
They came Friday night to St. Paul Catholic Church to pray before Jesus Christ, Our Lady of Vailankanni and Santo Niño of Cebu. And for the first time, they also came to celebrate members of the church who recently became U.S. citizens.
For years St. Paul has boasted a multicultural immigrant congregation with parishioners hailing from Latin American and African countries as well as India, the Philippines, Armenia, Ukraine and more. It has offered space and resources for culturally-specific icons to be worshiped under one roof and has even offered English courses and immigration services.
When Pastor Bill Swengros noticed a growing number of members attaining their citizenship in the last few years, he felt it was time for the church to formally recognize this achievement with a Mass.
"The more that we take the immigrant situation and humanize it, see the human face in it, the more we'll realize that we're all in this together," Swengros said.
So during Friday's Mass honoring Our Lady of Vailankanni — a Marian icon recognized by Christians, Hindus and Muslims alike — new citizens were given patriotic decor and were recognized with special prayers and a reception.
"It makes no difference what language we speak. It doesn't make any difference what religion we believe in. It doesn't really matter what country we were born in," Swengros said in the homily. "It doesn't matter what flag we fly over our heads. What really matters is that each and every one of us is a child of God and that these Americans have been truly, truly blessed."
Eloisa Perez, 76, bowed her head at the pastor's words.
Having arrived in the U.S. from Cuba in 2012 under the former "wet foot, dry foot" policy, Perez wasted no time getting ready to apply for citizenship. For the last two years she took free citizenship courses offered at St. Paul by immigration attorney Jorge Rivera.
The classes walk students through the citizenship application process, focusing primarily on preparing them for the interview portion which includes a history and English proficiency test, Rivera said.
While there's always been a demand for these classes, Rivera, who has taught at St. Paul since 2014, said there's been an increase in students as immigration laws and policies continue to change.
"People want to guarantee their stay," he said.
Perez, who was sworn in as a U.S. citizen this January, said it's an honor to be able to call the country her home.
"I came seeking freedom of speech, freedom of expression," she said. "I wish everyone here would be able to become citizens like me."
As readings during Friday's Mass featured messages of peace, justice and loving one's neighbor as one loves God, Swengros spoke of his own family's immigrant experience, how his mother's family came as Irish indentured servants and his father's family arrived from a small town near Hungary.
He reminded those in attendance of the struggles many face in seeking a pathway to citizenship here, and extolled the values of a diverse nation.
He also noted that U.S. citizenship comes with responsibilities, including voting and speaking out whenever the country falls into disarray.
Alcides Romero, a St. Paul member for the last decade who originally came from Colombia, noted that current political rhetoric has led to fear among immigrant groups.
Nevertheless, Romero, 61, who became a U.S. citizen two decades ago, still believes the nation can come together because of, and not in spite of, its diversity.
"It's great that this nation's philosophy is the inclusion of everybody," Romero said.
As Friday night showers turned into drizzle, the Indian, Filipino, Latino and other attendees gathered in the church's family center where a buffet of chana masala, chicken curry, hot dogs, and corn on the cob awaited.
And for dessert, apple pie.
Contact Ileana Najarro at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @IleanaNajarro.