The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic devastated an immigrant community. Its first Latino priest is spreading hope.

The Rev. Juan de la Cruz Turcios was 17 when he joined St. Camillus’s Spanish-language youth group

The Rev. Juan de la Cruz Turcios celebrates Mass on June 6 outside the Langley Park Boys and Girls Club in Maryland. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Halfway through the service, the Rev. Juan de la Cruz Turcios bounded out from behind the lectern with a sheet of paper in his hand and a winsome smile on his face.

Gesturing eagerly, he opened his homily on this recent Tuesday with a funny story from his childhood, drawing laughter from about two dozen people in the pews. Turcios never glanced at his notes as he explained in Spanish that the message of the daily Gospel reading was that good works create light amid darkness.

It was his first time celebrating daily Mass, as well as one of his last times doing so at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, from which he departs this month for a new assignment. In May, Turcios became the first Latin American from nearby Langley Park to be ordained as a Catholic priest — an optimistic sign for his fellow immigrants whose struggles with poverty, crime and lack of education have been made more difficult by the coronavirus pandemic.

About 61 percent of Langley Park residents are foreign-born, and community members said many are undocumented. About 12 percent of people in the surrounding Zip code have been infected by the virus — partly a result of the close quarters at home and at work — and plenty have lost family members to covid-19.

Amid those hardships, many residents turn to their Catholic faith for the courage to move forward.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that I feel on my side,” Turcios said, “to represent these people who have a lot of hope in me and in God.”

Joan Conway, a parish volunteer, has known Turcios since he led St. Camillus’s Spanish-language youth group as a young adult. She said Turcios, who arrived in Langley Park from El Salvador with little, set an example for his community by becoming first a religious brother and then a priest.

“This is a huge example for them of someone who trusted in God,” Conway said. “And the trust in God was very much fulfilled in an obvious way.”

From Central America to Langley Park

Turcios, 41, is intimately familiar with the struggle of Langley Park’s immigrants. His childhood in La Unión, El Salvador, was simple, with four siblings and a mother who sold tamales and bread for a living. His father had migrated to the United States at the start of El Salvador’s civil war, when Turcios was a toddler, to work and send back money.

On the first Sunday after the rest of the family joined Turcios’s father in Langley Park in 1997, they went to Spanish-language Mass at St. Camillus. Turcios, then 17, turned to his mother and made an observation about the priest, a nonnative Spanish speaker.

“I think I can say Spanish Mass better than that priest,” he recalled telling her.

The moment marked the beginning of Turcios’s ever-deepening role in the parish. Emboldened, he said he rang the bell of the church rectory the next day and asked whether St. Camillus had a Spanish-language youth group.

“We don’t have one,” Turcios remembered the priest saying, “but you’re going to start one.”

‘People here live in fear’: MS-13 menaces a community seven miles from the White House

Turcios did as he was told — and more. In addition to launching and later leading the youth group, Esperanza Latina, he also read at Mass at the parish’s Langley Park location.

The Langley Park Mission, as it’s known, was established by three parishes in the early 1990s to serve the area’s Central American community. St. Camillus later took sole control of the mission’s Masses and social services, which now include English classes, mentoring for students and an emergency fund for people at risk of eviction or utility shut-off.

The mission is so beloved that many members will attend outdoor services in the rain, said Sandra Perez, the parish secretary. Many parishioners don’t have cars, so they walk or take the bus to the school where pre-pandemic Masses drew more than 500 people.

Their devotion to Catholicism has made them particularly proud of Turcios’s ordination, Perez said.

“When they see all of that, and when he is so close to the people,” she said, “that brings them that hope that there is someone that can be there for them.”

Becoming a Franciscan

The first time Turcios saw the traditional brown garments worn by Franciscans, members of the Catholic religious order in which he is now ordained, he didn’t know what the robes signified. But he knew he wanted to wear one.

Then 10, Turcios was at a procession in El Salvador for the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Usually, boys would go dressed as Juan Diego, the saint who tradition says was visited by the Virgin Mary in the 16th century.

But that year, one boy instead dressed like the Franciscans. Turcios said he immediately felt drawn to the garment and now calls the moment his “pure innocence vocation to the Franciscan life.”

By that point, he was already steeped in Catholicism. His grandfather maintained a small altar in a corner of the family’s home and frequently prayed before an icon of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He brought Turcios and his brother to Mass on Sundays and treated them to ice cream afterward — even if they fell asleep during the service.

When Turcios later got to know the Franciscans who run St. Camillus, he felt drawn to their ministry. He said he fell in love with the order’s namesake, Saint Francis, because of his love for creation and devotion to the destitute.

At the time, Turcios counted himself among the poor. Six members of his family lived in the same two-bedroom apartment. They got bread and pasta from a food pantry. Gang violence, drugs and muggings were common in Langley Park, and Turcios worried that someone would steal his bicycle while he was at Esperanza Latina gatherings.

Against that backdrop, Turcios saw the Franciscans reaching out to people like him and realized he could see himself doing the same.

“I loved working for God,” he said. “I told myself, ‘Wow, I can do this forever.’ ”

An immigrant community faces a ‘catastrophic’ pandemic without help

Turcios said his decision to join the Franciscans as a brother, a lay person who commits to following Jesus Christ, was also practical: The order would pay for his college degree. He began his formation and then ministered in Tampa, where he studied history and studio art at the University of South Florida, before moving to a parish in Camden, N.J.

But being unordained limited the types of ministry that Turcios could perform. So he went to Chicago in 2016 to get a master of divinity degree to become a priest and graduated in May, days before he was ordained.

Mike Miehl, who met Turcios on a retreat about two decades ago, said he was struck by Turcios’s choice to pursue the Franciscan brotherhood, a different kind of family than the marriage-and-children path emphasized in his Latino community.

“It’s clear that he’s joyful about it,” Miehl said, “and I think that speaks volumes.”

‘Not just a small thing’

That Turcios was ordained amid a pandemic is particularly meaningful, said Juan Daniel Cortez, who met Turcios through Esperanza Latina 18 years ago. The Langley Park Mission had no in-person Masses for months because of the crisis, forcing members to sacrifice an important source of spiritual sustenance.

“It’s a big thing,” Cortez said of Turcios’s ordination. “It’s not just a small thing. It means a lot.”

Faith communities are important to Langley Park’s immigrants, said Gloria Aparicio Blackwell, director of the University of Maryland’s Office of Community Engagement. In addition to spiritual guidance, houses of worship also provide resources that help keep roofs over people’s heads and food on their tables.

“If it’s someone from your own community [representing a church], that is even better because they know exactly that that person understands what they’re going through, what their community’s all about,” Blackwell said.

In addition to its symbolism for Langley Park, Turcios’s ordination is also generally significant for Latino Catholics, who comprise 40 percent of Catholics in the United States but about 8 percent of its priests, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The church has been seeking to narrow the gap.

The Rev. Brian Jordan, pastor of St. Camillus, said Turcios’s gift of connecting with others makes him exactly the kind of person whose example could persuade other Latinos to pursue the priesthood. His ordination ceremony was packed with longtime friends concerned about getting seats.

“He knows the people,” Jordan said. “He knows what they went through — he went through it himself.”

Turcios said he has been touched to see his ordination cheered by people who knew him as “Brother Juan” for two decades.

“My feeling right now is like if you are a soccer fan and you have one of your soccer best players who is from your hometown,” he said. “They are cheering for me like crazy.”

Although Langley Park has long been his home base, Turcios said he looks forward to his first post-ordination assignment as a parochial vicar at a parish in Gary, Ind., a city where he served years ago as a brother. Turcios said he and the church’s other Franciscans will seek to bring peace to the impoverished community.

Turcios also hopes at some point to return to St. Camillus, where his ordination May 29 drew more than 100 people, including relatives who flew in from Houston, New York and El Salvador, among other places. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, gave a homily about joy, friendship and the priesthood. Turcios knelt for other Franciscans to pray over him.

Throughout the ceremony, his eyes were filled with tears.