St. Martin de Porres Church - Sister Virginia Welsh

St. Martin de Porres in Toledo reaches out to diverse congregation

By Bonnie Gretzner

Sister Virginia Welsh

A unique feature of the St. Martin de Porres Church in Toledo, says pastoral leader Sister Virginia Welsh, is its focus on diversity. “We’re not your traditional Catholic church,” she says. “The parish has a significant African-American population, as well as a small but strong Hispanic population,” Sister Virginia says. “We also focus on our youth. We really keep them involved.”

The St. Martin de Porres parish was established in 1990 and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Sister Virginia serves as both the pastoral leader and the director of the Padua Center, an educational outreach sponsored by the parish. As pastoral leader, she serves in all areas of the administration. “I fulfill all the roles of a pastor, with the exception of the sacraments, such as Mass and hearing confession, which are reserved to ordained priests,” says Sister Virginia, who was trained as an educator and began parish work in 1977.

To serve its diverse population, the parish holds two special Masses each year for the African-American experience, says Sister Virginia. The first Sunday of February celebrates Black History Month, and the first Sunday of November celebrates the feast of St. Martin de Porres. “We invite an outside preacher – someone notable in the black Catholic community – to come in,” she says. Last month the special Mass featured a deacon from Louisville, Ky.

The Hispanic community also has two special celebrations: one in summer for the canonization of St. Juan Diego and one in December for the Lady of Guadalupe. “They would also like another one in September, where they would teach our gospel choir Spanish music and really bring it together,” she says.

The parish just wrapped up a special celebration the last Sunday in February, where the Toledo Symphony performed as a celebration of Black History Month. “This year, we had the Central Catholic High School gospel choir sing three compositions with the symphony,” Sister Virginia says. “It was exciting for the students, and several members of our parish are in that choir.”

Sister Virginia also directs the Padua Center. The center got its start in 2006, when the Diocese of Toledo asked her to start an outreach center to be located in the rectory of the St. Anthony of Padua Church, which the Diocese closed in 2005. “The area was historically a Catholic area,” says Sister Virginia. “They told me to go find out what needs to be done and do it.” Working with the University of Toledo gave them information on how best to serve the community. “One of the University professors who does participatory action research brought her class in,” she says. “They interviewed people and researched the neighborhood. They found four areas the Padua Center could respond to – education, safety, housing and community development.”

The Padua Center put its emphasis on education. It provides after-school tutoring and homework assistance for local children in grades K-6. It also provides an alternative to suspension for children in nearby public schools. “The center picks them up at their schools, works with them on homework, has a ‘coaching conversation’ to help them reflect on the nature of their ‘offense’, and a session on peace education,” Sister Virginia says. After the day at the center, they are returned to their schools.

Sister Virginia negotiated with the Diocese to hold positions both with the parish and the center. “They transferred the Padua Center under St. Martin de Porres, so it’s one of the ministries of the parish,” she says. Other parish ministries include St.Vincent de Paul and the Claver House soup kitchen/food pantry. The arrangement works well for Sister Virginia, who wanted to maintain her work with the parish. “My heart,” she says, “is in pastoral ministry.”

If you have found this story to be interesting, informative, or inspiring, please let Sister Virginia know! You can contact her at (419) 241-4544; visit St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church at 1119 West Bancroft Street, Toledo; or email her at virginiawelshosf@gmail.com.