OGDEN -- A group of Latino teenagers circle a table in the St. Patrick's Center in Ogden.
They chant prayers as the group leader explains, in a mix of English and Spanish, the meaning of the beaded necklace known as a rosary.
The membership roster of this group is small so far, but continues to increase as the number of Latinos in Utah and in the Catholic Church grows.
About 80 percent of the 300,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Salt Lake are Latino, according to the diocese Office of Hispanic Ministry. Most are Mexican, but countries throughout Latin America are represented.
To serve this growing segment of the Catholic population, Bishop John Wester has asked the 49 parishes in the diocese to conduct at least one Spanish-language Mass a week. In addition a committee has been established to ensure the diocese reflects the multicultural nature of the church in Utah, with signage, communication and liturgy presented in other languages, especially Spanish.
"People will see and hear a multicultural church," Wester said.
Javier Chavez, owner of Javier's Mexican Restaurant, has been involved in the Catholic Church all of his life. He remembers the days when Spanish was not spoken in his church.
Chavez came to the Ogden area from Mexico in 1977 to attend Weber State University. He and a few other families, totaling about 30 people, petitioned the church and the diocese to conduct Mass in Spanish.
The church eventually agreed to have a service once a month, on condition that the Spanish-speaking parishioners would regularly attend.
Attendance at the beginning was small. The families would sit around the altar at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Ogden.
"It was a marvel," Chavez said. "For 10 years, there was only one Mass a month and we were only like 10 members."
In the mid-1990s, Utah experienced an influx of Latinos attracted by the growing job market. They came directly from Mexico or fled the California gang presence and housing prices. Like most Latinos, the new immigrants were mostly Catholic, and they began filling the pews.
"How we enjoyed hearing people speak Spanish," Chavez said.
There are now two full Spanish Masses on Sundays at St. Joseph, another service on Saturday and two during the week. St. Mary's Catholic Church in West Haven added one Spanish Mass at the beginning of the year.
'Church got better'
The new members introduced a livelier church. Those from California and Mexico brought a new church experience with more music, much of which was in response to the growing evangelical movement that attempted to poach its members.
"Everyone came with new ideas," Chavez said. "They were good ideas. People really felt the church over there. We started to move, to sing, to dance. The church got better."
The Rev. Gustavo Vidal became the pastor at St. Mary's Catholic Church in West Haven about six months ago. He came to Utah as a seminarian from Colombia during the Latino boom of the mid-1990s.
Since then, the Catholic church in Utah has become more sophisticated, offering the same services and groups found in areas with larger Catholic populations.
Vidal is working on increasing attendance at his new 8 a.m. Sunday Spanish Mass, which he feels is the duty of the church to provide.
"We all have the right to worship our God in our own language," Vidal said.
That view is not only a personal one but is mandated by Vatican II, said Maria-Cruz F. Gray, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry for the diocese. Many parishes have successfully integrated a Spanish Mass into their services.
When the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake, added a Spanish service, it became an instant success.
"The place is bursting with people," Vidal said.
Chavez believes that adding more Masses in Spanish will only increase church membership. He said many Latinos live outside of the urban areas where the services are typically held.
The church is prepared to serve the upcoming generations as well.
Ramiro Ignacio is from Ogden, the Utah-born son of Mexican immigrants who first lived in California.
"My mom brought me (to church) since I was a little kid, so I've done it my whole life," said Ramiro, 15.
His church youth group helps Ramiro face many of the challenges that specifically affect young Latinos, such as gangs, drug abuse and violence.
His fellow youth-group member Ana Reyes, 20 from Ogden, came to Utah from Mexico. The church provides her with a sense of community.
"You feel a warmth, you feel welcome," Reyes said. "It does not matter who it is, they leave the door open for you. There is no judgment and it gives you peace."
Along with filling pews, the Salt Lake Diocese has taken a pro-immigrant political stance.
"One of our biggest concerns is comprehensive immigration reform. It is something that keeps eluding us, but we are trying our best," Wester said.
Wester spent three years as chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration and Refugee Services, which formulates policies on immigration and resettlement.
"It's impossible to be bishop of this diocese and not deal with immigration," he said. "All the way back to the scripture, we see that immigration really fits the bill of what Jesus was talking about."
Throughout the world, many migrants come from Catholic countries, and Wester said the church is there to meet their spiritual needs.
"All along the way, from beginning, middle and end, the church is involved," Wester said.
The church benefits from its increased diversity as well, Gray said.
"It is like an orchestra," Gray said. "Before it was an orchestra with only flutes and now it is a beautiful orchestra with many different instruments."