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April 14, 2014

Padre Guillermo is uniting communities through ministry

CULLMAN — Guillermo Aristizabal was a young boy growing up Colombia when he knew he wanted to serve people by becoming a priest.

He never dreamed his passion for service would bring him thousands of miles away to Cullman, Alabama where he now serves as pastor over Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s Hispanic ministry. Padre Guillermo, as he’s called by his parishioners at the 100-year-old church, has been a priest for 21 years, three of those in Cullman.

Aristizabal grew up in Granada, Antioquia, Colombia and went to seminary at Cristo Sacerdote in La Ceja, Antioquia. After becoming an ordained Catholic priest, he served the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sonsón–Rionegro, located southeast of Medellin, for 19 years. One of his responsibilities as a priest was to give sermons on the radio for thousands of Catholic listeners in the region of northwest Colombia. He also visited hospitals, meeting with and counseling the sick and dying.

“I understood my service was to be for God,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to serve people and help them.”

After nearly serving for nearly two decades in his native Colombia, he took an opportunity presented by the Diocese of Birmingham to come to America to work with the growing Hispanic communities in North Alabama. Almost three years ago, he was assigned to Sacred Heart to head up the burgeoning Hispanic ministry.

The move meant he had to leave his family — three brothers, three sisters and his mother — back in his native Colombia, but now he feels his “spiritual family” is with him everyday in Cullman, Aristizabal said.

“In the beginning, it was hard for me being away from my family,” he said, “and being around a different culture, an American culture that is very different than where I grew up. That was hard to get used to.”

Sacred Heart’s Hispanic ministry is targeted toward Spanish-speakers. It provides spiritual growth by celebrating all aspects of the Catholic faith in their own language including traditions, reception of the sacraments, religious education, prayer groups, bible classes, social events and cultural celebrations. It also provides assistance with counseling, translation needs and referrals to agencies as well as hosting English and Spanish classes.

In December, Sacred Heart and its congregation welcomed more than 1,000 Hispanic residents to celebrate Our Lady of Guadeloupe which highlights Hispanic devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and consists of devotional prayers and family festivities dating back centuries.

Birmingham Diocesan Bishop Robert J. Baker celebrated the bilingual Mass and attended the dinner gathering after services. Dancers from both Birmingham and Cullman, costumed in handmade ceremonial outfits, recreated the classic battle between good and evil during the dance “Danza Guadalupana de St. Francis Xavier.”

The event also included the blessing of cars followed by the traditional procession through town bearing the statue of Our Lady of Guadeloupe to the church.

Aristizabal said his mission and message is that the church supports all communities, regardless of residents’ background or birthplace.

“I want, and the church here wants, to make the two communities, the American and the Hispanic, to become one community,” he said. “There is only one God. There is only one heaven. That’s where all people, no matter where they are from, want to go.”

Hispanic church members hail from all across the Western Hemisphere, from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Cuba, he said.

“We’re here to support the entire congregation but also the community and people of all faiths,” he said. “We help people get English classes. We help anyone who is needy, who have trouble with bills or need medical care and have no insurance. The spirit of service is the most important thing, to serve the good of the community.”

Aristizabal said Father Patrick Egan and the Sacred Heart congregation has the same intentions: to open all doors and all hearts. Previously, a separation existed between the two congregations, but now church offices are combined to assist all parishioners, English-speakers and Spanish-speakers, he said.

Those passing by Sacred Heart’s iconic twin steeples may notice that the welcome sign out front has changed. Information about the Hispanic ministry’s service times and meeting days share equal space with the English services. The services also don’t interfere with one another. Hispanic mass is celebrated each Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m.

“It’s the same for everyone, for the Hispanic congregation and the English one,” Aristizabal said.

He credits Egan and the rest of the church for supporting the Hispanic ministry and bringing it into the Sacred Heart fold.

“The people are learning from one another. The Americans come up to our Hispanic members and say “Buenos dias,” and the Hispanic members are saying “Good morning, how are you?”

For more information about Sacred Heart’s Hispanic ministry call 256-736-5406 or go online to www.sacredheartchurchcullman.org/espanol.htm.

Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at towens@cullmantimes.com or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.

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