The Simbang Gabi Mass last night, Dec. 20, at St. Bernardine Catholic Church provided one more example of how multicultural the church scene has become in Forest Park.

Simbang Gabi – literally “Night Mass” – is a tradition in which Catholics in the Philippines gather at 4 or 5 in the morning for nine consecutive days, beginning on Dec. 16, to prepare for Christmas. The Filipino community at St. Bernardine hosted the event, which included a Mass and a table of Filipino treats.

What made the event truly multicultural was that not only did Filipinos and their friends from all over the Chicago Archdiocese come to St. Bernardine, but the priest presiding at the liturgy, Rev. Patrick Wangai, was born in Kenya. Fr. Wangai is the assistant to St. Bernardine’s pastor, Fr. George, who was born in India.

Like Mexican Catholics who enjoy singing “Ma-anitas” for the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day or German Christians who love singing “Stille Nacht” at Christmastime, Filipinos stay connected with traditions from their homeland by celebrating Simbang Gabi.

“It was a big sacrifice back home,” recalled Angelita Ramirez who came to the U.S. in 1975, settled in Forest Park and worked as a medical technologist until she retired from Loyola Hospital in 2007. “We’d get up early in the morning for nine days straight. They’ve revised it for our area. Now we do it in the evening and have a party afterward.”

According Fr. Wangai, the special Mass will be celebrated on nine successive evenings in different parishes in the Chicago Archdiocese. Simbang Gabi, for example, was held at St. Vincent Ferrer last Saturday at 7 p.m. with the same format.

Estellita Taylan, a Forest Park native who works as a nurse at Rush Hospital and sang in the choir at last night’s Mass, said, “This tradition is held in preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. The culmination of the festivities is the preparation of our favorite native dishes and delicacies and also the singing of Christmas songs from house to house.”

Fr. Wangai noted that the Simbang Gabi tradition, also known as the Misa de Gallo or “Rooster’s Mass,” was started by the Spanish missionaries who brought Christianity to the Philippines in the 17th century. Nowadays, he said, the tradition also includes hanging lighted paper lanterns from windows in the houses along the street to the church.

“Simbang Gabi,” he said, “announces that Christmas is just around the corner and is a way of deepening the spiritual experience that will lead to a more meaningful Christmas season. It is further hoped that this celebration may facilitate a better sharing of faith and culture in the parish, thereby strengthening fellowship and family life in the community.”

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Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.