The Rev. Joseph Williams kneels on a hardwood floor next to a woman and her two young daughters, their hands clasped in prayer before an image of Jesus that hangs in the family’s south Minneapolis apartment.

In Spanish, the priest explains who Jesus is to Catholics. Shows the girls how to make the sign of the cross. Recites the Hail Mary prayer: “Dios te salve María. Llena eres de Gracia ...”

As pastor of St. Stephen’s Church in Minneapolis, Williams bears witness to the importance of Hispanics to the Catholic Church.

St. Stephen’s has found new life by embracing the changing demographics of the community and is among the fastest-growing Catholic parishes in the Twin Cities archdiocese — from 150 members four years ago to nearly 1,000 today. It is just one example of the burgeoning Hispanic Catholic community in the Twin Cities, which numbers close to 140,000.

“The church is becoming increasingly aware of the role Latinos are playing now and will play in the future of the church,” Williams said. “And we want them to feel at home. We create space for them in the church to be who they are.”

St. Stephen’s, founded in the late 1800s for Irish immigrants, is now a predominantly Hispanic congregation. Williams, a slim 38-year-old with bright eyes and a warm, sincere smile, has shepherded the church through its recent transition.

He credits the church’s growth to its evangelization efforts. Parishioners regularly walk the neighborhood, going door-to-door to homes, bus stops and markets where they spread the Gospel message. Last week, he was part of the group that went out to invite people to Easter services.

“We’ve made a decision to go out into the neighborhoods, meet our neighbors and welcome them ... to really carry a missionary spirit,” Williams said. “When you die to a certain way of being parish, namely the come-and-get-it way of being a Catholic parish ... you can be reborn to a new way of being parish, which brings new life.”

Pope inspires Latinos

St. Stephen’s growth comes at a time of rebirth for the Catholic Church at large, with newly appointed Pope Francis — the first from Latin America — celebrating his first Easter as leader of the global church.

His appointment as pope bears great significance for Hispanic Catholics, particularly at St. Stephen’s where some hail from South America, like Pope Francis.

“I see the Latinos and their situation in this country, many are undocumented, and so there’s a sense they can live with a certain kind of fear, a certain kind of inferiority,” ­Williams said. “I think with Pope Francis, there’s an affirmation of them as Latino Americans. And they feel that.”

Latin America accounts for nearly 40 percent of the worldwide Catholic population, and the number of Hispanics is growing in the United States. According to the 2010 U.S. census, Hispanics represented nearly 16 percent of the U.S. population, or around 50 million people. Some 63 percent of Hispanics self-identify their religion as Catholic in the United States.

In response to the growth in Minnesota’s Hispanic Catholic population, the archdiocese named the Rev. Kevin Kenney, senior pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul, as vicar of Latino ministry nearly three years ago.

Kenney’s appointment reflects an increased “awareness that this community is growing and we need to welcome them,” Williams said.

It’s not uncommon for Spanish-speaking immigrants to fall away from the church while working multiple jobs, learning a new language, trying to find good health care and schools for their children.

Sometimes they’re just looking for an invitation to come back to church, according to Timothy Matovina, professor of theology and executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

“The immigrant is happy to show up at a place with fellow immigrants, where there’s fellowship and a sense of meaning and purpose and community, ” Matovina said. “The immigrant is starving for that often. They don’t get it at the corner Latino store or in some soccer league.

“A good Spanish-language mass, with a good choir, working with the traditions with the people where they feel at home. Boy, that’s huge.”

Williams says he’s sought to make St. Stephen’s that kind of place, celebrating masses in Spanish, filled with lively ­guitar music and singing. Sunday worship services are often standing-room only.

Calling to Hispanics

Among the faithful is Jorge Matute, 45, an immigrant from Ecuador who has lived in the Twin Cities nearly 14 years. He said he started attending St. Stephen’s nearly two years ago when he heard about the Latin-filled worship.

“I love it here, ” said Matute. “Something’s happened over here. ... I’m so impressed by the way they talk about God. They really touch you. They touch my heart.”

Growing up in Stillwater with an Irish Catholic background, Williams felt a calling to minister to Hispanics while he was studying to be a priest at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. He met with priests serving Latino populations. He worked with a man from Honduras and learned Spanish from him. Then he spent a summer in Mexico, which helped him become bilingual.

“I didn’t enter the seminary with the intention of serving the Latinos, ” Williams said. “It’s something the Lord really drew out of my heart.”

In addition to providing a touchstone with their homelands, St. Stephen’s also works to help people find their way in their new country.

Enzo Randazzo, 23, a recent graduate of the University of St. Thomas, has been ­working at St. Stephen’s to help to encourage young parishioners to graduate from high school and seek out college.

“I’m just so grateful to be a part of it,” Randazzo said. “For a Latino, it’s like coming home.”