In Mexico, priest studies Spanish

Father Thom Hennen poses with Hermana (Sister) Celina in Morelia, Mexico, last month. (Contributed photo)

By Celine Klosterman

Father Thom Hennen, parochial vicar at Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton, will begin celebrating a monthly Spanish Mass there after spending January in Mexico learning the Spanish language and studying Mexican culture.

During his immersion experience, Fr. Hennen received four hours of tutoring weekdays in Morelia, Mexico, from the Hermanas del Sagrado Corazón de Jesus y de los Pobres – Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of the Poor. The priest, who’d previously studied Spanish for a month in Spain in 2000, had sought further education since Prince of Peace began offering a monthly Spanish Mass about 18 months ago. Father Ed O’Melia, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Davenport, has been celebrating those Masses. The liturgies have drawn attendance of anywhere from 80 to 200 people, Fr. Hennen said.

Fr. Hennen journeyed to Morelia on the suggestion of Father Rudolph Juarez, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City. In the south-central Mexican city, the Clinton priest celebrated daily Spanish Masses for the Sisters. “The whole time, they didn’t speak a lick of English to me” — except to answer questions during tutoring sessions, he said. Trying to enter their conversations was “like trying to merge onto I-80 on a bicycle. By the time you figure out what they’re talking about, they’re onto something else.” 

Despite occasionally dreaming in the foreign language, “I never got to the point where I was thinking in Spanish.” But Fr. Hennen feels he can communicate better with Spanish-speaking Catholics. “The trick is going to be keeping up with it,” taking opportunities to practice the language during baptismal preparation classes or invitations to parishioners’ homes, for example.


He hopes to study Spanish further in the future. “A month is a long time to be away from the parish, but not a long time to learn the language. I wouldn’t mind going back down (to Morelia). It was really ideal for me to have Mass every day and learn about the experience of the church in Mexico.”

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