The Rev. Jose Eugenio Hoyos was studying architecture in his native Colombia when he received the calling to become a priest.
So he headed to seminary and learned about constructing bridges between people and building houses of worship in the spiritual sense.
"God called me to be an architect of souls," Hoyos said.
This summer, Hoyos was appointed director of the Spanish Apostolate for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. The position, which requires ministering to Spanish-speaking Catholics and increasing their involvement in the church, is of growing importance to the diocese, which includes 21 counties and seven cities throughout Northern Virginia.
Because of the region's burgeoning immigrant population, Arlington's is one of the five fastest-growing dioceses in the United States. It now offers Spanish-language Masses at 34 of its 67 parishes.
The 2000 Census estimated that 224,420 Hispanics live within the boundaries of the diocese, but church officials believe the actual number is greater.
"There's probably a lot more," said the Rev. Richard Mullins, director of multicultural ministries for the diocese.
"That's already dated, and not everyone cooperated with the census."
Mullins said studies indicate that about 70 percent of Hispanics consider themselves Catholic, regardless of whether they attend Mass regularly. Hoyos's task is to help them connect with the church and to ensure that the church ministers to their needs.
"I present to them a church that cares for them and opens doors for them," said Hoyos, 49, who is the first Latin American to hold the post. His predecessor, the Rev. Ovidio Pecharroman, the apostolate's director since 1992, was born in Spain.
As Latin Americans, Hoyos said, "We have our own traditions, our own culture, our own music, even our own accent," but he added that the diverse nationalities remain united by the bonds of language and faith.
"We have one Christ, one church," he said. "In this large diocese, we all belong to part of the same family. Nobody can be a stranger."
Hoyos was born in the city of Buga, the eighth of 12 children. After seminary, he taught religion and philosophy and later served four years as a high school principal. He was ordained in 1984 and joined the Arlington diocese in 1988. His first assignment was as parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More. In 1993, he moved to St. Anthony of Padua in Falls Church, where he served until 2001. Most recently, he was the pastor of Holy Family Parish in Dale City.
Hoyos said the job's biggest -- and most pleasant -- surprise so far is that his pastoral duties far exceed his administrative ones.
"You need to be off site, in the hospital or teaching in the evenings," said Hoyos, who as part of his new duties visits a different church every other week.
At the end of this month, he will begin leading a weekly class in Spanish for the church's lay leadership, and he expects to be a regular guest of youth groups and Biblestudy classes throughout the diocese.
Hoyos will continue to write a monthly column for the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Grafica and host a television program and radio show in the Central American country. He makes about six mission visits to El Salvador a year. He also has a Sunday program on Arlington radio station WZHF 1390 AM.
And he will continue working with Mapavi, a local nonprofit organization that he helped found in 1992. The group, which for years has provided relief to those facing medical crises, has recently begun focusing on stemming gang violence. Hoyos also is an advocate for reducing the stigma of HIV/AIDS among Latinos.
Hoyos said he hopes his actions will help spread the Gospel and enlarge the church's outreach to the community.
"Sometimes I feel I am crazy because I do too many things, but I do them in the name of the church," he said.
Hoyos lives at St. Philip Parish in Falls Church, where he will also celebrate Mass on occasion. About one-quarter of the congregation is Spanish-speaking, and many attend the Spanish-language Mass on Sunday. In addition, a number of those who come to the parish seeking help -- unemployed or otherwise in need -- are Hispanics who are more comfortable dealing with the church than with a government agency, said the Rev. Kevin Walsh, pastor at St. Philip. Walsh said he hopes that Hoyos will use what he called his unique gift for connecting with people to raise money for relief causes, advocate more strongly for the Hispanic community and recruit more Hispanics to the priesthood.
Although Walsh speaks Spanish fluently and spent two years in Latin America, he believes Hoyos's background will help him forge a special bond with the Hispanic community.
"You can do your best at serving the Spanish population, but there's a certain identification," Walsh said. "There was this increased joy just seeing someone up there who looks like them. Consciously or unconsciously, they might think, 'He understands me more.' "
Hoyos's duties will include organizing a number of cultural festivals. He said celebrating Latin American culture will contribute to unifying the diverse ethnicities of the area by helping them understand each other better.
"The position he holds now is key," St. Anthony's parishioner Luz Daleney said in Spanish. Daleney, 66, runs the religious bookstore at St. Anthony's.
"He'll be able to help all the Hispanics in the Catholic Church even more."
Hoyos has known Daleney, a native of Bolivia, for more than 15 years. He officiated at the marriage of her daughter and baptized two of Daleney's grandchildren. She has sought his counsel on various problems and trusts him as a spiritual guide.
But the priest made his greatest impression on her, she said, in the way he has helped the poor, those who are in the country without immigration papers and all who are generally in need, providing moral and financial support.
"Without him, we would be orphans," she said. "This is the best thing that could have happened."