A Catholic organization that ministers to Hispanics by helping them with earthly and heavenly needs celebrated two decades of service Sunday.
On Sunday, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight and former Bishop John Gaydos led a bilingual Mass at St. Peter Church for El Puente. A reception followed at the Selinger Center next door.
Three Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word formed El Puente in late 1999: Sisters Peggy Bonnot and Marianne Kramer, both with Jefferson City ties, and Sister Margaret Snyder, of Kirksville.
Bonnot and Snyder, the two surviving founders, attended the Sunday ceremony, which also celebrated the 150th anniversary of Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.
"We really weren't sure where the Hispanics were" in the late 1990s, Synder said at a reception after the Mass. "We thought maybe we would have to go stand outside Walmart to find some of them and begin the ministry."
She said they started helping a few families who led them to more.
"It was very small at one point, but look at us now. It's wonderful," Snyder said.
Bonnot said Hispanics would come to the organization for various needs, such as pregnant women seeking medical care.
Snyder also credited the now-retired Monsignor Don Lammers for helping the organization at the start.
"All I did was encourage Margaret," Lammers said. "You (Snyder) opened the doors to the community."
Retired Bishop John Gaydos approved the ministry. At the reception, he said the decision was a "no-brainer," as it was easy to see the need.
Gaydos said the sisters already were helping Hispanic families within their parishes.
"We were fortunate that, we've had since 1960, priests on mission in Peru, so we had individuals who knew Spanish," Gaydos said. "But they didn't know the culture. Everybody thinks that if you know Spanish, you can take care of all" the problems.
"But these sisters, because of their roots in Texas, they were much more attuned to the Central American ways," Gaydos said.
El Puente means "the bridge," and the organization is intended to be a bridge between cultures. El Puente's core values are honoring the dignity of every person, compassion and collaboration.
One family at the reception that has been served by El Puente is Alberto Villagomez and Carmen Garcia and their children, Celeste and Jonas Villagomez.
"El Puente has helped me and my family since we got here (in 2003)," Garcia said through a translator. "When I was pregnant with Jonas, the sisters would help me with interpretations, going to my doctors' appointments.
"It was a great support for both of us during that time, especially because of the language. And she (Snyder) is very lovable and supportive," Garcia said.
She said the organization has continued its support of them and others living in California, Missouri.
Seven parishes in the Jefferson City Diocese coordinated with El Puente from the start: Immaculate Conception, St. Peter and St. Joseph in Jefferson City; Our Lady of Lourdes, Sacred Heart and the Newman Center in Columbia; and Annunciation in California.
Some of the needs of Hispanics that are being met include getting paychecks cashed, finding housing, communicating with landlords, scheduling English as a Second Language classes and work, getting translation for various appointments, obtaining legal aid in Spanish, enrolling children in school and helping with homework.
With large Hispanic populations in other parts of the diocese, El Puente will consider in the future whether to expand its mission.
That likely will be determined when the nonprofit organization has a new executive director in place. Sister Barbara Neist currently serves the role temporarily, while a search for a permanent director is expected to be finished by the end of November.