Father Hilario Cisneros ministers to immigrants
Like many immigrants coming to the United States looking for work and a better way of life, Hilario Cisneros arrived in 1980 searching for a fresh start. But after two years of long days harvesting fruits and vegetables in California for $3.25 an hour, the Michoacan Mexican farmer found God — and a new reason to live.
Thousands of immigrants come to this country with the hope of achieving the American dream,” he said. “Unfortunately, many are lured by a hope for rapid rewards and take easy paths, but the results are often disastrous. Many find death in drugs, alcohol and other vices. They come here with the ambition to better their lives but often do not have the spiritual guidance to ground them.”
In 1981 while attending a Holy Spirit seminar in Oxford, California, Cisneros experienced a religious epiphany that motivated him to become a priest. A year later, he was admitted to the Novitiate House run by Missionaries of the Holy Spirit in Queretaro, Mexico, and in 1992, after a decade of religious study in Mexico and the United States, was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.
“I found the God of life and love and dedicated myself to carry that to others, to teach the Bible, and to preach ‘The Good News’ while administering the sacraments to those in need,” he said.
Finding a way
After eight years as a Catholic priest, Father Cisneros met Ruth Abicely and found a way to be both a priest and a husband: “After a long period of reflection and discernment, and with the blessing of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Apostle Luke, on Nov. 2, 2009, I was received as an Episcopal priest in Las Vegas, Nevada,” he said.
Cisneros met his present calling as rector of the La Capilla de Santa Maria Hispanic mission just off Chimney Rock Road on the outskirts of Hendersonville three years ago. He ministers to his mostly Mexican flock in a serene chapel located on a rugged 12-acre site, which also has an historic cemetery.
Ruth Cisneros serves as director of Christian Education at the mission and is credited with breathing new life into the youth programs. The Cisneros reside in nearby Edneyville.
La Capilla was built in two stages and completed after World War II. It later became a mission of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Western North Carolina, led by retired Bishop Bill Folwell and priests and volunteers from three Episcopal churches: St. James of Hendersonville, Holy Family of Mills River, and St. Paul of Edneyville. The mission is an important part of their outreach ministries.
According to Larry Winecoff of Hendersonville, a member of the Outreach Commission at St. James, “Father Cisneros not only reinvigorated the congregation at La Capilla de Santa Maria, but was instrumental in doubling membership since his arrival three years ago.”
A vulnerable flock
Joyful in his tasks, Father Cisneros nevertheless suffers because those in his flock feel vulnerable during these turbulent political times. He not only offers comfort and solace to parishioners while preaching, he relates important life lessons to help them overcome fear. He motivates them with this admonition: “It is time for the Hispanic and Latino people to wake up and ‘rise like lions’, and to shake our fears and complexes.” And he often quotes Hopi elders who proclaim: “We are the ones that we have been waiting for.”
As many as 120 congregants now attend Sunday services at the mission, which provides transportation for families that need it. There are up to 35 children ages 1 to 9, 23 kids are in the Youth Ministry program, and confirmations have risen to 10 to 20 per year. Several of the musicians that Father Cisneros has encouraged are now an integral part of the services.
Summer classes are conducted in reading, math and computers in the parish’s restored fieldstone and old-timber Folwell House that also hosts adult confirmation preparation classes. It also serves as a temporary home for homeless or needy families.
The clergyman, who celebrates his 59th birthday today, further explains his religious purpose: “Our mission is to bring the congregation to higher levels of Christian formation, faith, fellowship and education by supporting local families and the community, and by building bridges between those in the Anglo culture and the Latino/Hispanic people.
“My ministry is one of faith, love and compassion. It is like a dynamic circle that keeps me moving and striving to better the world, the Episcopal Church, the local community, and my congregations.
“I listen and learn from others and tell stories that remind us that we once were slaves. I feel the joys and sorrows of my fellow brother and sister immigrants, and I wish for them to lift up their spirits with courage and resolve. In short, I am a ‘wounded healer’ in action.”
The energetic rector is credited with starting satellite churches in several Western North Carolina communities, including Burnsville, Spruce Pine, Morganton and Waynesville.
Father Cisneros’ focus has shifted to an emphasis on religious teaching. He recently completed the first year of an intense four-year doctorate program at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
“The program requires four weeks each year on site, and lots of homework,” the priest explained.
Cisneros’ message is reflected in the following poem by Percy B. Shelley that he often shares with parishioners:
What I dream today / Lo que sueno este dia
What I dream today? Que Anhelo hoy?
“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.”
Jack J. Prather of Hendersonville has authored seven books, including “Six Notable Women of North Carolina” in 2015 and “Twelve Notables of Western North Carolina” in 2012 that were nominated for N.C. Literary & Historical Association Ragan Awards for Non-Fiction. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org