NORMAN — For Arn Henderson, the classes offered a chance to converse more fluently in his wife’s native language of Spanish.
Empty-nester Betsy Nelson wanted to use her newfound time to gain more knowledge about Hispanic culture, while Sister Maria Faulkner wanted to communicate better with the elderly Hispanics she often aids through a ministry program.
And Don Garner said he needed to strengthen his Spanish-language skills to help heighten his experiences during trips to countries like Costa Rica and Colombia.
The motivation for attending the Father Stanley Rother Hispanic Cultural Institute is different for each student, but their commitment to the program is the same.
Such dedication is more than the institute’s co-founders hoped for when they started it six years ago at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 421 E Acres in Norman.
The program is offered for $25 each fall and spring semester. People from the community gather on Tuesday evenings for a session on Hispanic culture then break into smaller groups for Spanish-language classes.
University of Oklahoma medieval Spanish professor Luis Cortest, and Maria de Jesus Paez de Ruiz, OU professor emeritus of modern languages, literatures and linguistics, two of the institute’s co-founders, said it was created for several reasons.
Cortest, 62, said he was tired of all the negative images about the Spanish-speaking world — undocumented immigrants, drug cartel violence and drug trafficking — that seemed to proliferate in the U.S. media.
The professor said he was born in Wichita, Kan., to Mexican immigrants, which is part of the reason he is so passionate about fulfilling the institute’s mission.
“The whole goal of the institute is to present a more positive and yet informed picture of Hispanics and Hispanic culture,” Cortest said.
Ruiz said in her many conversations with non-Hispanics, she had realized that many of them instantly thought of Mexico when someone mentioned anything about Hispanics.
“But there is so much more to our culture than one country,” the Cuba native said.
Ruiz said she also saw the program as a way to educate metro-area Catholic priests and other religious leaders who increasingly were encountering Hispanics in their daily ministry.
The two educators, along with several others, envisioned a program that offered weekly Hispanic culture and Spanish-language classes to members of the community-at-large.
They said they hoped that through their weekly interactions, people would begin to build bridges of understanding across the lines of culture and faith that often keep them distanced from one another.
The program’s participants said the institute has done just that.
“Padre nuestro, que estasen el cielo, santificado sea tu Nombre (Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name),” the students said in unison as a weekly session of the institute began recently.
Ruiz, the program’s coordinator, said each session begins with a group recitation of the “The Lord’s Prayer” in Spanish.
This is followed by a lecture on Hispanic culture which could mean a discussion on the differences in Hispanic foods or a speaker’s recent visit to a Latin America country.
After providing a map of Mexico to each of the 25 participants, Cortest talked about America’s neighbor to the south, asking the group questions about Mexico’s currency and economic future, along the way.
Henderson, OU professor emeritus of architecture, listened intently.
He said he had been taking classes at the institute for several years, hoping that his newfound Spanish-language skills would help him speak more fluently with his Guatemalan-born wife.
When Beatriz Henderson died in 2011, he said he stopped going to the classes but recently started attending again.
The 70-something widower said he was drawn to the program again by the language skills he had obtained, but also for the opportunities of fellowship with the friends he had made among other participants.
“I had to go back to the beginner’s class because there were things that I forgot,” he said, chuckling. “But there’s really more to it than learning.”
Meanwhile, the students divided into groups according to their level of skill. Faulkner, a nun with the Gospel of Life religious community, and the Rev. Dan Letourneau, St. Joseph’s associate pastor, separated into a group for people interested in learning conversational Spanish. The two said they are interested in learning specific words and phrases that will help them minister to Hispanics in their parishes.
Faulkner, who is a part of the St. James the Greater Catholic Church in south Oklahoma City, said she speaks French fluently, but that skill hasn’t helped her grasp the Spanish language.
However, she said the classes already have helped her better navigate her conversations with Hispanics participating in a St. James’ outreach ministry.
Letourneau, 56, said the institute takes advantage of its proximity to OU with all of the dedicated professors and instructors who commit to teaching the weekly classes.
He said he has presided over the Spanish Mass at St. Joseph several times in recent weeks and his fledgling Spanish speaking skills have been enhanced by the program’s classes.
Letourneau said his Hispanic parishioners have been encouraging him as he attempts to use their language with greater finesse.
“They say ‘you did great!’ They love the fact that I’m trying,” he said.
Garner and Nelson, both of Norman, said they look forward to the weekly sessions at St. Joseph.
Garner, 74, said he just came back from Costa Rica and traveled to Colombia in recent years.
He said he has taken foreign languages classes at OU and at another university, plus an online language class. Garner, retired from the Navy, said the friendly environment of the institute’s evening classes have helped him as he attempts to overcome obstacles that have thwarted his previous efforts to become more fluent in Spanish.
“I have a 2,000- or 3,000-word vocabulary, but I can’t put the verbs and nouns together to make sense. I usually communicate through one-word statements,” he said. “The teachers here are wonderful. They make everything fun and easy to understand.”
Nelson, who attends First Christian Church of Norman (Disciples of Christ), said she started attending the classes about two yeas ago after her youngest son graduated from high school.
She said she was particularly interested in the language classes, but the Hispanic culture speakers like Cortest have made such thought-provoking presentations that she has become keenly interested in culture sessions as well.
“I thought learning a new language would stretch my brain and it was an opportunity to meet new people,” she said. “We’ve also learned about some different countries, their politics, the food and other things from really enthusiastic people who make you care about things you hadn’t thought of before.”
For Cortest and Ruiz, the institute has fulfilled their original mission and is a community program that its namesake would likely be proud of.
They said the institute is named after the Rev. Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma native who was serving in Guatemala when he was killed in 1981, for a reason.
Ruiz said the program is a another way to exemplify Rother’s widely known love and respect for other cultures and languages — and to multiply it.
AT A GLANCE
What: Father Stanley Rother Hispanic Cultural Institute
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays
Where: St. Joseph Catholic Church, 421 E Acres, Norman.
Cost: $25 per semester.
Information: 321-8080; email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org; http://hculturalinstitute.blogspot.com.