by Benjamin Knoll
The Diario de Yucatán newspaper from Mérida, México recently reported:
“Last week the [Roman Catholic] Archbishop of Yucatán, Monsignor Gustavo Rodríguez Vega, and other Catholic priests, warned about the presence of an ex-priest who was performing the imposition of ashes in the Plaza Grande and promoting a ‘schismatic church’ in the city. They explained that this man was dismissed from his priestly ministry for ‘a serious act that he committed’ and that he currently offers his services as a psychologist and a priest of a non-Catholic church.”
The Archbishop was referring to Padre José Vieira Arruda of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church of Mérida, Yucatán. Up until a few years ago, Padre José was a Catholic priest who regularly celebrated mass in English for a group of American and Canadian expats. Originally from Portugal, Padre José is a polyglot who speaks four languages fluently and has advanced degrees in theology and psychology. He was relieved of his duties by the Catholic Diocese, however, after the “serious act” referred to above:
“What I did was invite a female [Episcopal] priest friend to give communion and preach the Word during a Eucharist service. That was all, and I want it explained because people are thinking a thousand and one things and that’s not fair,” he said.
After his dismissal, Padre José was invited to a new opportunity. The news report continues:
“A little time later, he said, some American and Canadian Episcopalians approached him and said, ‘Father, we’d like you to be our pastor, we’re going to start an Episcopal Church in Mérida…’ and here we are.”
They began meeting in the house of Frank Kriegel, an American expatriate living in Mérida, where they held weekly meetings and Eucharist services. After a few more location changes, the congregation grew large enough that members were able to secure their own building for a meetinghouse. While at first the congregation looked into forming a relationship with the Mexican Anglican Church, the parishioners of St. Luke’s eventually decided to chart their own course and establish an independent Episcopal congregation in Mérida.
“Now our Mexican brothers and sisters are also attending and they are with us,” explains Padre José. “The American Consul comes here every Sunday with her family. We have close to one hundred parishioners here.”
After more than three years, St. Luke’s is now a thriving congregation in downtown Mérida with two Eucharist services every week (one in English and one in Spanish) and multiple service activities and weekly formation events. While the congregation initially was composed mostly of American and Canadian English-speakers, these days the Sunday morning Spanish service draws two to three times more parishioners than the English service.
One of St. Luke’s most recent ministry projects has been to establish a mission-church in a small rural community about half an hour’s drive south of central Mérida called La Casa del Buen Pastor (“House of the Good Shepherd”). Members of the congregation travel there every other week on Sunday evenings to provide a Eucharist service and provide dinner for those in attendance.
This type of ministry fits with St. Luke’s wider focus on inclusivity, social justice, and outreach. In a community dominated by conservative religious and cultural values, St. Luke’s has a reputation for being a haven for the LGBTQ community in Mérida. Working with members of the congregation, St. Luke’s has often partnered with REPAVIH, a non-profit organization in Mérida that fosters community and support for those affected by HIV, to sponsor community activities and public awareness campaigns. Padre José’s sermons are especially welcoming and affirming to LGBTQ members of the congregation.
St. Luke’s has also extended its outreach efforts across international borders. The congregation has recently established connections with the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. Members of the congregation in Ohio have visited St. Luke’s in Mérida over the past two years and Padre José has been able to travel to the Church of the Good Shepherd in Ohio to further these congregational connections.
Given this focus on outreach, it is no surprise that Padre José and other members of the congregation take Holy Week celebrations to the people in the city’s main square each year, inviting whoever would like to participate regardless of their background. Padre José “explained that he does it every year, going to take ashes to the people in the streets, and they receive it enthusiastically as he tells them that they are loved of God.”
“We are a church of departure,” he says, “we go out to meet the people.”
More information about St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mérida, Yucatán, México is available on their website: https://stlukesmerida.org/ as well as in a recent interview with Padre José that was featured on the Forward Movement’s news blog. A Google translation into English of the original news feature from the Diario de Yucatán news website is available here. St. Luke’s also shares live-cast portions of their services and Padre José’s sermons on their Facebook page.
Dr. Benjamin Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He is a political scientist specializing in American public opinion and voting behavior, specifically in the fields of religion and politics and race and politics. He is the co-author of She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, (Oxford University Press, 2018). @benjaminknoll28