Man Of God: Father Carlos A Steady Presence For Island’s Spanish-Speaking Catholics

It’s a Sunday night at St. Mary Our Lady of the Isle church on Federal Street and Spanish mass is in session. Instead of organ music, the sounds of a live guitar and drums serenade the faithful. The pews are completely full – with more than 250 people in attendance – and the booming voice of Father Carlos Patiño Villa fills the church. 

It is a voice the island’s Hispanic community has come to know well, and most of all, it’s one they trust. Father Carlos has led Nantucket’s Spanish-speaking Catholics at St. Mary’s for 14 years now, and he has emerged as a spiritual and community leader for the island’s growing Hispanic population.

“I like my work,” Father Carlos said with a smile while sitting in the foyer of the St. Mary’s rectory on Orange Street earlier this month. “And Nantucket? I love Nantucket. I love the community.”

When Father Carlos first arrived on Nantucket in 2006 to serve the island’s Spanish-speaking Catholics, he had just three people in his prayer group, and only two dozen or so people showed up for Spanish mass at St. Mary’s on Sundays. Fourteen years later, it’s standing room-only for his sermons. The prayer group has grown to more than 100 people, and the Spanish mass at St. Mary’s regularly draws 200 to 250 people each Sunday, far more than the English language mass that precedes it. 

“He’s grown with us,” said Cecilia Gutierrez, a religious educator at St. Mary’s who works in the island’s public school system. “And he made the community grow so much because of his energy, and reaching out to people who felt left out. He finds the people who need help.”

Father Carlos’ congregation includes Spanish-speaking families from several different Central American countries, but it is largely members of the island’s sizable Salvadoran community that fill the pews at St. Mary’s. These families – many who hail from the same small town in El Salvador known as Agua Caliente – have embraced Father Carlos for his willingness to immerse himself in their lives, become part of their community, and come to their aid when they are in need. 

“Very humble, very hardworking, and very spiritual,” is how Father Carlos describes his flock on Nantucket. “But these people lived through the time of the guerilla war,” he said, referencing El Salvador’s brutal civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s. 

Gutierrez said Father Carlos has made it a point to involve the youngest members of the church, encouraging them to serve during Spanish mass. Whether it’s standing by a family going through an immigration issue, a court case, or spearheading a fundraiser for those in need on the island, Father Carlos has been there, she said. 

In turn, the community has supported him. To help Father Carlos get around the island and do his work more efficiently, members of the church pitched in to buy him a used car, Gutierrez recalled. 

St. Mary’s Our Lady of the Isle has gone through a handful of English-speaking pastors since Father Carlos started coming to Nantucket in 2006. But he has remained a steady presence. 

“He’s so dedicated,” says St. Mary’s current Pastor, Father John Murray. “He loves the people, and the people love him. As the pastor of the parish, I see the deep love and appreciation that the folks, primarily from El Salvador, how much they love our faith and our church, and appreciate the priesthood. And Father Carlos represents that greatly. He’s been there for them, and they’ve been there for him.”

That dedication quickly earned him the trust of his congregation. So much so that when Father Carlos first decided he wanted to spend more time on Nantucket instead of commuting back and forth to the Diocese of Fall River where he was based, a member of the church, Douglas Tejada, put him up in his basement. The accommodations weren’t much to speak of, Father Carlos recalled – basically a mattress in the basement – but the generosity was greatly appreciated, he said. 

“That allowed me to stay more in Nantucket,” Father Carlos said. “I wanted to serve the community better and give a different focus for their spiritual and social work”

Before long, St. Mary’s pastor at the time, Father Conroy, made sure Father Carlos knew he could stay in the church’s rectory on Orange Street whenever he wanted. 

Father Carlos originally hails from the city of Medellín, Colombia. When he was just three-years-old, his family converted to the Evangelical church. But as a teenager, he was befriended by a Jesuit priest who Father Carlos called “a student of history” who persuaded him to become a Catholic. 

“I said ‘this is a good man’,” Father Carlos said. “I’ll take this way.”

Serving the Catholic church in his home city opened his eyes, and the work was rewarding. 

“My first experience was with the sick people, visiting their house for communion and this was moving for me,” Father Carlos said. “My family, we are poor people too. But when I opened my eyes in the communities, I saw there are people more poor than me. I said OK, this is good work at the church.”

After serving the church in Medellín for years in his 20s and 30s, the city’s Bishop came to Father Carlos with a new mission. 

“He asked me, can you go to the United States on a mission for the Spanish people? And I said yes,” Father Carlos recalled. He was 36-years-old, and having never been to the United States before, he arrived in Fall River, Mass. not sure of what to expect. His initial assignments were at churches on Cape Cod, and at St. Mary’s on Nantucket, and for 10 years he travelled back and forth between the two communities. 

“I was surprised,” Father Carlos said of his first impressions of the Spanish-speaking community at St. Mary’s when he arrived. “It was a small group in the church, some women, but mostly men.The wives and the families were back in San Salvador.”

Gutierrez was part of that small group that first welcomed Father Carlos to the church on Nantucket. 

“We were all excited we were getting a Spanish-speaking priest,” she recalled. “Someone who understands us. From the beginning, we saw he’s not just sitting up there telling people what to do. He does it with us.”

Before long, it wasn’t just men who were coming to the church. Their families began to show up as well, having joined them on the island from El Salvador and other Central American countries. The shift was reflected not only at St. Mary’s, but also in Nantucket Public Schools, where Hispanic students are now more than 36 percent of the total enrollment. 

St. Mary’s Spanish mass now includes parishioners from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, and Father Carlos makes them all feel at home by doing things like recognizing the independence day celebrations in each of those countries when they arise during the year. It’s one of the many touches that have endeared him to not only St. Mary’s Spanish-speaking Catholics, but even those on the island who do not attend church. 

“We are open to the people, not only for Catholics, but other people whether or not they participate,” Father Carlos said. “People are looking for rent, food, they have old people who are sick, and our compassion group is looking for people’s needs. Whether you are Catholic or not, you are a person.”

When he’s not at St. Mary’s or out in the community, Father Carlos enjoys Nantucket like the rest of us. He tries to go swimming every day he’s on the island – Jetties Beach is a favorite – and take bicycle rides around the island. He loves Italian music, and while he enjoys soccer, he said the competition on the island is a little too intense in the men’s league. “The people here are very strong,” he said. “Maybe I’d break my leg.”

As for the future, Father Carlos would like to continue serving the island through his role at St. Mary’s, but he knows the call could come one day from his Bishop asking him to take another assignment at a different location where he is needed. For now, though, he plans to continue to embrace the community he’s helped build on Nantucket, and the leadership role he’s carved out for himself within it.

“It’s almost 16 years here, and the people know me,” he said. “They look for me for visits, for ideas, for leaders, and how I can help”

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