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New Bishop: Some wonder why a Latino wasn't picked

Published January 9, 2007 12:19 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With Latinos accounting for nearly 70 percent of Utah's registered Catholics, and the predominance being greater if undocumented immigrants are factored in, William Gonzalez was adamant that Utah's next Catholic bishop should be Latino himself.

So when the emeritus Spanish professor at the University of Utah learned Monday that the Rev. John Wester would be taking the helm, he didn't hold back his feelings.

"He has to be Hispanic. He has to be fluent in Spanish," Gonzalez, 65, said. "People are going to be very upset, and there's going to be trouble."

The number of Latinos in Utah has exploded since 1990, when there were fewer than 85,000 in the state. Today, according to some scholars, that figure well exceeds 300,000. And of those who identify with a religion, at least 80 percent call themselves Catholic.

Given the statistics, Gonzalez said of the latest news: "This is slapping the Hispanic community right in the face."

Not everyone, however, is feeling the sting.

Jorge Arce-Larreta, vice president of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, sees Wester's experience working with a large Latino population in San Francisco as a blessing.

"I'm very excited that a new Catholic bishop has finally been named," said Arce-Larreta. Wester has dealt "with Hispanic Catholic needs," and "I know he speaks some Spanish."

And if what the Rev. Omar Ontiveros gleaned from Wester on Monday is any indication, things will only get better.

"I wasn't expecting a Latino bishop perhaps as other people were, but my reaction was very positive," said Ontiveros, who has been at the Cathedral of the Madeleine for about six months. "He saw the growing Hispanic population as a gift for the Catholic church."

When Wester is formally installed in March, he will have his work cut out for him, said Andrew Gallegos, founder of Centro de la Familia de Utah, a social services agency. With Utah's increasing poverty, immigration issues, and "pains of growth in our diocese," the new bishop will be up against some special challenges, he said.

Rather than focus on what could have been, Gallegos looks ahead with faith.

"We support the Pope in his choice," he said. And as for a Latino bishop, he added, "We'd like to see that someday happen, but until that does, we'll accept the direction of the church. We'll honor [Wester's] coming here and wish him success."

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* JESSICA RAVITZ can be contacted at jravtiz@sltrib.com or 801-257-8776.