Places That Matter | Latinos in Rhode Island

Iglesia Hispana "El Calvario" | Providence, RI

La Iglesias Hispana El Calvario (The Calvary Baptist Church) is still actively serving Latinos in RI. It is located on 747 Broad St. in Providence.

4. Iglesia Hispana “El Calvario” | 747 Broad Street | Providence, RI 02907

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Click here to listen to Rev. Litardo talk about the founding of the first Latin American Ministry in 1974
In the summer of 1974, Cuban minister Rev. Pedro Ortiz walked the streets of Rhode Island, knocking on the doors of local churches. He was there on behalf of the American Baptist Church, tasked with finding congregations willing to host Spanish-speaking services. It was Calvary Baptist Church that opened its doors to him.

Calvary has a long history in Providence, Rhode Island, stretching back to 1854. One hundred and twenty years after its founding, the church at 747 Broad Street became home to the first permanent Baptist Hispanic congregation (Iglesias Hispana) in Rhode Island — and part of a watershed of Hispanic congregations forming across New England.

The reason was simple: the Hispanic community in Rhode Island took root in the late 1950s and 1960s, at which point Doña Fefa is credited with helping newcomers settle. As the Hispanic population grew, Latino restaurants, like Antillas, began cooking mondondo (spicy tripe soup); Hispanic taxi companies began driving around the city; and Hispanic advocacy groups began organizing for greater political representation. With Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Colombian immigrants and migrants establishing themselves across Rhode Island, a new community began forming – and the need for houses of worship became clear.

In fact, by 1974 Providence was already home to two Hispanic Pentecostal congregations. But the American Baptist Church, seeing the dearth of Hispanic services throughout New England and hoping the Baptist faith in particular would be represented, decided to take a dramatic step in increasing the number of Hispanic churches. Cuban minister Pedro Ortiz had answered the Church’s call. In the span of two years, Ortiz raised fifteen congregations in New England.

Rev. Francisco Litardo, born in Ecuador, was named the first minister of the Iglesias Hispana El Calvario congregation. Speaking to the Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island, Rev. Litardo remembers the difficulties of raising a congregation in an ever-changing community:

“When I was here sometimes we were 200, 250, sometimes 150, 180, because people were coming and leaving, especially in Rhode Island, because the state is small… they move to this city. They look for some churches, they find my church, they begin to attend. And they stay one month to three months, one year, and then they decide to leave. And it’s very difficult in that way to raise a big church.”

This shifting group was diverse. Rev. Litardo remembers that most were from Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, with a smaller percentage of their members migrating from Puerto Rico. At the time of this interview in October 2000, Rev. Litardo could identify over six different denominational tendencies — from Roman Catholic, to Methodist, to Pentecostal. As a minister, Rev. Litardo felt his task was to bring this diverse group together into one family. This meant instilling a strong sense of culture, with dynamic, noisy services that filled the church’s walls with spirited singing and often went over time.

Another Pastor, Rev. Juán Francísco, Jr., also witnessed the growth of Hispanic congregations throughout Rhode Island. Arriving with his family in 1970, his parents founded the Iglesia Pentacostal Puerta de Refugio or Door of Refuge Church in 1974. Today, as Lead Pastor of Puerta De Refugio, he sees meaning in the fact that there are now hundreds of Hispanic churches:

“It’s a point of assimilation and of keeping identity. Knowing the role that the church plays in the development of immigrant populations, it’s easy to conclude that most definitely the increase in churches have most definitely helped in that process.”

From two Hispanic Pentecostal churches before 1974 to hundreds of churches today, the increase in Spanish-language congregations throughout Rhode Island is both reflective of the changing demographics and indicative of the central role of the Church in Rhode Island Latino communities.
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