Making disciples of all nations

Ethnic ministries keep the faith alive in local immigrant cultures

By Christina Gray

“It is like when you walk into a garden with so many unique flowers and plants and so many vibrant colors. You stand for a moment in awe of the full beauty of it.”

Those are the words of Deacon Fred Totah describing the Catholic ethnic ministries in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, 20 in all: African-American, Arab, Brazilian, Chinese, Filipino, Hispanic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Myanmar, Native American, Polish/Croatian/Slovenian, Samoan, Tongan and Vietnamese.

The ministries connect members of a shared native heritage to the Catholic faith and each other through the Mass and sacraments, liturgical traditions, common prayers, seasonal and saintly devotions, food, music and song.

“The way I look at it, the beauty of our Church, even though we come from different parts of the world with our own expressions of faith, we are still one family under God,” said Deacon Fred (Fuad), an Arab-American Catholic who emigrated to San Francisco in his teens from the West Bank town of Ramallah outside Jerusalem.

He oversees the archdiocese’s ethnic ministries as director of the department of pastoral ministry, a “Catholic support system,” as he calls it, for parishes and parishioners. Ethnic ministries oversee the pastoral and sacramental care of the Catholic ethnic groups that live in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties.

“These ministries are very important to me, very important to the archdiocese, very important to us as a local church,” said Deacon Totah. “That’s, in fact, who we are.”

The way I look at it, the beauty of our Church, even though we come from different parts of the world with our own expressions of faith, we are still one family under God.

Deacon Fred Totah

The meaning of the word “catholic,” he emphasized, is “universal” or literally, “embracing the whole universe.”

Deacon Totah personally understands the value of ethnic ministry. The Arab-American Catholic community in San Francisco was quick to embrace him after his arrival in 1976, he said. They helped him adjust to a new culture and stay connected to his roots of faith.

Ordained into the permanent diaconate in 2014 after a career in the legal profession, Deacon Totah was tapped to oversee ethnic ministries in 2020. He has been slowly getting to know the ethnic groups with which he is not familiar.

“In order for me to build a bridge, I need to understand more about that culture,” he said. “We all do.”

One of his goals is cultivating greater Catholic unity between individual cultural groups. Creating opportunities for collective, communal worship is one idea.

“When I first came here, the archdiocese hosted something it called ‘Thanksgiving around the World’,” he said. Catholic ethnic groups came together for a shared Mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption. Hundreds would participate in the Mass and international potluck in the conference center downstairs afterward. “My vision is to resurrect that idea.”

Ethnic ministries: A Gospel imperative

The goal of ethnic ministries is nothing short of the command heard in Matthew 28:19-20, according to Deacon Totah. In speaking to his early followers, Jesus made clear the scope of spreading his Good News:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” he told them.

Pope Pius XII, in his 1952 apostolic constitution, Exsul Familia Nazarethana (The Exiled Holy Family), presents the Holy Family as archetypes of immigrants and refugees. He prescribed Church policies and guidelines for the care of foreign nationals within Catholic dioceses.

Speaking of the work the Church had done to offer refugees and migrants comfort and hope in their trials, Pope Pius commented, “…the Church had to look after them with a special care and unremitting aid.” He then went on to quote the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, a significant ecumenical papal assembly during the Middle Ages under Pope Innocent III:

“We find in most countries, cities and dioceses, people of diverse languages who, though bound by one Faith, have varied rites and customs. Therefore we strictly enjoin that the Bishops of these cities or dioceses provide the proper men, who will celebrate the Liturgical Functions according to their rites and languages. They will administer the Sacraments of the Church and instruct their people both by word and by deed.”

Referencing the benefits of ministry to foreign-born Catholics and non-Catholics, it added that it is “a source of great benefit to both dioceses and souls.”

“Cultural pluralism” is the common heritage of all Americans, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). In 2000, its subcommittee on the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers issued a pastoral statement entitled, “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.”

“For the Church in the United States, to walk in solidarity with newcomers to our country is to live out our catholicity as a Church,” the bishops wrote.

San Francisco: an immigrant church

San Francisco has always been shaped by newcomers, and newcomers were often shaped by the local church.

Spanish colonial explorers brought missionaries with them to teach Native American Indians the new faith. During and after the California Gold Rush, Catholic immigrants, primarily those from Ireland, Italy and Germany, arrived in San Francisco with priests and nuns to establish the new city’s churches, schools, hospitals and orphanages. Filipinos, Portuguese, Japanese, Koreans, Polish, French Canadians and the Chinese were among those who followed their path in smaller numbers.

In the first of his three-part book series entitled, “The History of the Archdiocese of San Francisco,” historian and former archivist for the archdiocese Jeffrey M. Burns used the words of a priest in 1857 to describe San Francisco as a melting pot like no other.

“The Catholics here are of all nationalities, even Chinese and Indians from the old missions,” he observed.

In 1853, Spanish-born Dominican Father Joseph Sadoc Alemany was sent to San Francisco to serve as its first archbishop. He appealed to Pope Pius IX to send someone else to the bustling pioneer town but was told: “You must go to California. Where others are drawn by gold, you must carry the cross.”

The wild diversity of the outpost presented a pastoral challenge for the archbishop: how to best serve his flock, a challenge that continues for the Church today.

The new immigrants

The changing composition of immigrants to San Francisco has demanded shifts in Catholic ministry.

“In the past 35 years the number and variety of immigrants coming to the United States have provided a great challenge for us as pastors,” U.S. bishops wrote in “Welcoming the Stranger.” They noted that while previous immigrants had come predominantly from Europe or as slaves from Africa, many of the new immigrants come from Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Poverty, violence, religious and ethnic persecution, political strife, climate change and new immigration laws have all fueled the new migration.

A 2014 report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University entitled, “Cultural Diversity in the Catholic Church in the United States” commissioned by the U.S. bishops revealed the ethnic mix of U.S. Catholics in 2010. Leading the list was non-Hispanic/white at 54 percent of the Catholic population; Hispanic/Latino, 38 percent; Asian/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, four percent; American Indian/Alaskan Native, one percent.

Local ethnic ministries

Of the archdiocese’s 20 ethnic ministries, the Filipino, Hispanic and Chinese ministries are the largest.


On July 31, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone celebrated a Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral marking 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines. The homily was delivered by Salt Lake City Bishop Oscar Solis, the first Filipino bishop in the U.S.

In a short Facebook video after the Mass, the archbishop called Filipinos “joyful exporters of the faith,” who are truly “modern day missionary disciples.”

“We are very proud how we have influenced the Catholic faith,” said Edgar Estonina, president of the Filipino Ministry Consultative Board and St. Gabriel parishioner. He said the ministry has an outward purpose: to evangelize using the gifts and talents and energies of the Filipino community.

“We are Catholics first, not Filipino Catholics,” he said.

Estelle Oloresisimo, a St. Augustine parishioner who serves the ministry’s communications needs, said Filipinos like liturgical “pageantry” and blend cultural celebrations with religious ones. “That is another heritage of the Spanish,” she said.

Father Eugene Tungol, pastor of Church of the Epiphany, is vicar for the Filipino ministry.

Estonina said that Simbang Gabi (Early Morning Mass), a traditional Filipino nine-day novena leading up to Christmas Eve has caught on in “mainstream” parishes.

Simbang Gabi originated in the early days of Spanish rule over the Philippines as an early morning compromise for farmers, Estonina said. The cherished Filipino custom is being celebrated at Christmas by more non-Filipino parishes.

In 2019, Pope Francis celebrated Simbang Gabi at the Vatican for the first time, he said.


The Hispanic ministry is active in 33 parishes in the archdiocese. Hispanic Pastoral Ministry is led by Father Moises Agudo, vicar for Spanish-speaking Catholics.

Several parish groups almost entirely minister to Hispanics. Among them are the San Francisco Mission parishes, with 3,800 parishioners total in St. Anthony, St. Peter, and St. Charles Borromeo; St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Menlo Park and its mission of St. Joseph the Worker in Redwood City, with a combined 2,500 parishioners; and the rural coastal missions of Our Lady of the Pillar Parish in Half Moon Bay, i.e., St. Anthony Parish in Pescadero and Our Lady of the Refuge Parish in La Honda. In addition, many other parishes like St. Francis of Assisi in East Palo Alto serve large Hispanic populations by offering Masses in Spanish throughout the archdiocese.

St. Anthony (Menlo Park), one of several hubs for Spanish-speakers, offers four Masses in Spanish on the weekends and one in English, four charismatic groups, and a formation program for first Communion that before the pandemic brought in some 300 children, along with 120 young people for confirmation. Our Lady of the Pillar, in Half Moon Bay, attracts young people “who want to come to the church,” said Father Jose Corral, pastor. During the pandemic 123 young people were confirmed. The parish also supports the charismatic group Fishers of Men.

The Hispanic ministry has organized the Día de la Hispanidad, or Hispanic Day, since 2011. The annual event for the Spanish-speaking faithful is scheduled for Sept. 11 at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The ministry also directs the Pastoral School of Hispanic Leadership, offering a basic five-year program with two additional years of specialized courses.

In addition, the Quinto Encuentro is a national Catholic organization with a strong program in the archdiocese. Created by the Catholic bishops of the United States to accompany Hispanics on their faith journey, the Quinto Encuentro is a model of evangelization with the objective of Catholics being missionary disciples.


The large Chinese population in San Francisco and the Bay Area offers “great potential for evangelization,” according to Father Peter Zhai, coordinator of the archdiocese’s thriving Chinese Ministry.

Father Zhai was born in Chinese Inner Mongolia into a faithful Catholic family who practiced their faith in secret out of fear of persecution.

He said Chinese culture is “a collective culture rather than individualistic one,” where members “long to be together.”

Even during the pandemic, he said, the Chinese community gathered on Zoom every night to pray the rosary.

The ministry’s retreats, faith formation programs, workshops, Bible studies and religious education classes are normally held at one of eight parishes that offer a Chinese language Mass: St. Monica, St. Anne, Sts. Peter and Paul, Old St. Mary in Chinatown, St. Gregory, St. Mark, St. Dunstan and St. Cecilia.

The lack of priests who speak Chinese is a challenge to the ministry, said Father Zhai, who celebrates most of those Masses.

So is the “scattered” nature of the Chinese Catholic community across San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

“As I have witnessed in different Chinese communities in the U.S., it’s much better for evangelization if everyone gathers together, makes the sacrifice to travel a little bit and to be together,” he said. “Once you have a bigger Chinese community, the energy is high, the liturgy is better, and it attracts the young people.”

Ethnic Ministries

These are 20 distinct ethnic ministries active in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Please visit for more details about each ministry.

African-American Ministry
Christopher Major

Arab American Ministry
Rev. Richard Van De Water

Brazilian Ministry
African-American Ministry
Christopher Major

Arab American Ministry
Rev. Richard Van De Water

Brazilian Ministry
Glaucia Ajisaka

Burmese Catholic Ministry
Elizabeth Law

Chinese Ministry
Rev. Peter Zhai, SVD

Filipino Ministry Vicar
Rev. Eugene Tungol

Hispanic Ministry
Rev. Moises Agudo

Indonesian Ministry
Iwan Soegiharto

Irish Ministry
Rev. Brendan McBride

Italian Ministry
Rev. Al Mengon SDB

Japanese Ministry
Mako Rova

Korean Ministry
Rev. Jeong Gon Kim

Myanmar Ministry
John Lee

Native American Ministry
Andy Galvan

Polish / Croatian / Slovenian Ministry
Rev. Kazimierz Abrahamczk

Samoan Ministry
Rev. Daniel Carter

Tongan Ministry
Rev. Kapiolani Kakala

Vietnamese Ministry
Rev. Te Van Nguyen