The Rev. Shay Auerbach stood beneath a stained-glass window and a cross hanging down from the high ceiling of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Before him was Mariana Mendoza, a Henrico County teenager experiencing one of the seminal moments in Latino culture. Family and friends were gathered in the pews of the South Richmond church, staring in awe at Mendoza’s sparkly gold and purple dress.
Her father, Leonel Mendoza, had walked her down the aisle of the church that August afternoon for her quinceañera, a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. The traditional ceremony featured hymns, a brief sermon from Auerbach and the presentation of gifts, such as a gold Bible, from family members who fought back tears.
“We realize how much God loves her and how life has purpose for her,” Auerbach said to Mendoza, who wants to be a surgeon as a way to help people. “It’s not always going to be easy, but you have to keep trying.”
The tradition, which got its start in Latin America, signals a transition from a girl to a woman. It’s a rite of passage for Latina girls, a religious and social event for both the family and community to celebrate the move into womanhood.
Sacred Heart Catholic Church holds a few quinceañeras each month, part of its extensive services as the oldest Catholic church in Richmond south of the James River. The church has evolved into a Latino-dominant church, transitioning alongside the communities it serves.
Located at 1400 Perry St., Sacred Heart holds six masses weekly — two in English and four in Spanish — with weekly attendance of more than 1,100 people. In combination with a community center across the street bearing the same name, Sacred Heart has evolved into a hub for the region’s growing Latino community.
“The church takes care of the spiritual side of it,” said Auerbach, who has been the church’s pastor since 2008. “The center takes care of the social justice side of things.”
The Sacred Heart Center opened in 1990 in the former Sacred Heart School building, property owned by the neighboring parish but operated independently by the nonprofit center.
Like the church itself, which originally catered to a Irish and German congregation, the population the center serves has also evolved, from white to black to Latino. In 2011, the center’s mission changed to focus specifically on Latino communities.
“We envision a Richmond community that actively embraces each other and our shared humanity,” said Tanya Gonzalez, the center’s executive director since 2016. “I hope that people would get to know our community and see our beauty the way I see it on a daily basis.”
The center’s reach extends far beyond just the Manchester neighborhood where it stands.
The area’s Latino population is on the rise, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with the ethnicity representing 6.7 percent of the city’s population, 8.8 percent in Chesterfield County, 5.6 percent in Henrico and 3.1 percent in Hanover County.
By 2030, nearly one in five people in the area will be Latino, according to projections from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. Chesterfield would have the highest percentage at 23.2 percent.
“This is a population in Richmond that is large and getting larger,” said Brooke Purcell, a member of the center’s board. “The Sacred Heart Center is the primary place that has stepped forward to meet the needs of this community and bring them together and give them a voice.”
Said fellow board member Bill Weber: “A healthy Latino community brings a very additive element to a community, just from a culture and energy.”
The services offered by the center range from English as a Second Language classes (how Purcell initially got involved with the center) for adults to art classes for children. The center offers a 10-week program to help members of the community prepare for the citizenship test and also has a leadership institute where participants earn three credits from the University of Richmond.
A conversational Spanish class is also taught for people who aren’t native speakers. The center has a table with information about its services outside of Mass on Sundays.
Led by a staff of about 30 people — eight of them are full-time employees — the center serves about 10,000 people each year, some of them members of the church across the street and others who are not.
“They’re here for the community,” said Tonya Osinkosky, a community organizer with New Virginia Majority who called the center an “anchor.”
Seen as an anchor, a classroom and a faith home, Sacred Heart carries on, as it has since 1901 as a church and 1990 as a center, meeting the needs of people both within and beyond its brick walls.