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, rather than literal, 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, including Loudoun, 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 think the actual number is higher.
"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," he said.
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 he 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 Bible-study 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 there. He makes about six mission visits to El Salvador a year.
And he will continue working with Mapavi, a local nonprofit group he helped found in 1992. The group, which for years has provided relief to those facing medical crisis, 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 to 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 to recruit more Hispanics to the priesthood.
Although Walsh speaks Spanish fluently and spent two years in Latin America, he thinks Hoyos's background in Latin America will help him forge a special bond with the local 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 to understand each other better.
"The position he holds now is key," St. Anthony's parishioner Luz Daleney said in Spanish. Daleney, 66, also runs the religious bookstore at St. Anthony's.
"He'll be able to help all the Hispanics in the Catholic Church even more," she said.
Hoyos has known Daleney for more than 15 years. He officiated at the marriage of her daughter and baptized two of her grandchildren. She has sought his counsel on problems. But the priest made his greatest impression on her, she said, in the way he has helped the poor, those in the country without 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."