Story by S.L. Hansen
TECUMSEH (SNR) - In cooperation with Southeast Community College (SCC), St. Andrew Parish in Tecumseh offers adult English classes to all Spanish-speaking members of the community.
Father Thomas Dunavan, pastor, estimated that around 20 percent of Tecumseh’s population are immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries.
“Kids are gaining English skills in school,” he said, “but it’s the parents and young adults who can really benefit from a greater knowledge of English.”
Adults pay a reasonable fee to attend the classes, which consists of two-and-a-half hour sessions held twice weekly at St. Andrew School. The class is now being taught by Tammy McAuliffe, a veteran second-grade teacher with 27 years of experience.
“I just noticed it in our church bulletin, and I just wanted to do something to help people,” she said. “I thought it would be an opportunity for me to learn as well, and I have.”
Mrs. McAuliffe was definitely outside of her comfort zone in taking on a class of adults who spoke little or no English.
“I had one year of Spanish in high school, and I just about didn’t pass. I was horrible,” she admitted.
She is sympathetic to how difficult it is for these women to learn English.
“I can’t myself imagine moving to another country and not knowing the language,” she said.
Belen Peña, a member of St. Andrew Parish who became fluent in English through the same class, serves as a classroom aid and translator.
“I wanted to do that to help my friends,” Mrs. Peña explained.
“She is just wonderful,” Mrs. McAuliffe stated. “If I did not have her, I don’t know what I would do.”
Through the efforts of these two women, the students in the class are learning to speak, read and write English. Using resources provided by SCC, including a computer program, Mrs. McAuliffe starts them on the basic sounds of letters and then phonetics, moving into sight words.
“I really admire these students,” she said. “They really want to learn…. One woman told me she wants to be able to help her child with homework.”
Mrs. Peña said she and the other students are also motivated by their desire to understand others and to be understood.
“It’s important to be able to communicate with people at work or other people in whatever they need to do,” she said.
From a pastoral perspective, Father Dunavan said the English classes are also a form of outreach.
“The class includes parishioners, but it’s also for those that are maybe a little bit peripheral, who don’t practice their faith,” he said. “Maybe they came for the American dream, and their jobs didn’t give them a day off, and so they didn’t practice their faith.”
By coming to the class, they can see the school, visit the church and note the Spanish Mass that Father Dunavan celebrates at 12:30 p.m. every Sunday.
With 50 of the St. Andrew Parish families being bilingual, Father Dunavan speaks Spanish with people every single day. This extends to more than celebrating Mass and hearing confessions – parishioners rely on him as a translator. Even the local sheriff will call on him in a pinch when a translator is necessary.
Father Dunavan also uses Spanish at the local prison, where he leads a Bible study once a week and hears confessions for Spanish-speaking inmates.
On occasion, he has had to assist a family whose lack of English language skills caused a significant problem. One example was a local Hispanic family who had hired a contractor, but he never showed up to do the work.
When they brought the contract to Father Dunavan for help, he discovered that the dishonest contractor had tricked the family into paying for work done on somebody else’s property, in a completely different city. Father Dunavan connected the family with an attorney who was successful in retrieving their lost money.
For Father Dunavan, this experience emphasized the need to offer English classes.
“If you think about language,” he said, “it’s an extraordinary asset to being able to function in society.”
Mrs. McAuliffe is happy to be part of the process.
“It’s just very rewarding to see them be successful and to be able to comprehend,” she said.