Filipino Catholics kick off traditional ‘Simbang Gabi’ celebration

Mass, social gathering begins nine-day novena leading to Christmas

ALLOUEZ — Very few countries are home to more Catholics than the Philippines. As of 2010, according to the Pew Research Center, there were about 76 million Catholics living in the Philippines, which is made up of over 7,000 islands. About eight in 10 Filipinos identify themselves as Catholic.

Filipino Catholics attending a ‘Simbang Gabi’ Christmas celebration at Resurrection Church in Allouez pose for a photo following Mass. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

The Diocese of Green Bay is home to an enthusiastic community of Filipino Catholics, and anyone not familiar with just how exuberant Filipinos are about the Christmas season, should know that celebrations in the Philippines actually begin in September.

But Dec. 16 is a key day during Advent, as Filipinos look ahead to Christmas Day. It is that day that the devotional nine-day series of Novena Masses, referred to as “Simbang Gabi” — “Misa de Aguinaldo” or “Misa de Gallo” — begins.

Last Sunday, Dec. 16, Filipino Catholics in the Diocese of Green Bay and other parts of the state gathered at Resurrection Church in Allouez for this first Mass that will lead to Christmas Day. Seven Filipino priests concelebrated in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, with an estimated 250 people in attendance. Missionaries of Faith Fr. Joel Jores was one of the two guitarists in the choir.

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This is the sixth year the celebration has been held. The overall coordinator is Dr. Marlon Hermitanio, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in De Pere, who also coordinated the traditional Filipino music at the Mass. The liturgy was planned by Missionaries of Faith Fr. Judah Pigon, who is administrator of St. Benedict Parish, Suamico, and St. Pius Parish, Little Suamico.

“Being part of the Mass reminds me of the richness of the Christmas celebration where I grew up,” said Fr. Pigon, adding that helping prepare the liturgy, “makes me feel like I’m in the Philippines.”

“From the first day of September (in the Philippines) you will hear already the Christmas songs played on the radio station, not to exaggerate, but it’s true,” he said. The novena Masses happen early in the morning, usually at 4 a.m., which he said was inherited from the Spanish. “We are the only Spanish colonized country that the Vatican allowed to continue doing (the novena Masses). Even Spain doesn’t do it anymore.”

“Those who haven’t been back to the Philippines for a long time, especially during this season, they missed that spirit of Christmas,” said Fr. Pigon. “Bringing back this tradition, at least for one time, brings their good memories.”

The entire event — from the Mass to the celebration of food and fellowship afterwards — can best be described as a faith-filled annual reunion of friends and family.

Rosario Belgado’s role is to get the word out on Facebook about the Mass and festivities, but the food after Mass is also never far from her mind. A member of St. Rose Parish in Clintonville, Belgado helps to coordinate the festive Noche Buena Feast, which is designed to bring back memories of Christmas Eve celebrations back in the Philippines.

Belgado, 70, who emigrated to the United States in 1980, comes with lots of experience when it comes to Filipino cuisine: she served as an official caterer of President Ferdinand Marcos as well as his wife Imelda.

“I had a lot of exciting experiences because of this,” she said. Marcos was president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986.

“My first job was in Sulo Restaurant in Makati, official caterer of the palace,” she said. “Then Via Mare in Makati, another caterer of the palace. Finally, I was the food production manager of Puerto Azul Beach Resort, partly own by the Marcoses in Cavite. We had to be ready when the presidential yacht ‘Ang Pangulo’ would dock. It was also the site of meetings for Asian prime ministers. … I was responsible for creating the menus for these.”

Planned for the potluck menu last Sunday was a whole roasted pig. “A Filipino celebration is incomplete without this,” said Belgado.

There was also Pancit. As she explained, they “are noodles cooked with a variety of meat and vegetables. Usually it includes Chinese sausage — the Chinese introduced this dish to the Filipinos.”

Beef Caldereta is another popular Filipino dish, traditionally using goat meat, but beef can be used. It is cooked with tomato sauce, onion, liver spread, pepper and other spices. Dinuguan is a Filipino stew made of pork meat cooked in pig’s blood, vinegar and spices. Empanada is a pastry turnover filled with a variety of savory ingredients. And then there is Arroz con Pollo, which Belgado described as a “chicken rice porridge.”

And the list goes on. But, Belgado emphasized, “we cannot eat all the dishes without rice,” so there was both fried rice and steamed Jasmine rice.

Belgado said no Noche Buena Feast is complete without desserts like Leche flan, made of eggs and milk with a soft caramel topping, Crema de Fruta, with layers of homemade sponge cake with sweet custard and fruit gelatin, and Puto, the steamed cake that is always served during the holidays.

“Spaniards had a big influence on the Filipinos since they ruled us for 333 years until Spain’s defeat at the 1898 Spanish-American War,” said Belgado. “A lot of our words are in Spanish, we count in Spanish.

“Thanks to the Americans who ruled us from 1898 to 1946, we adapted the American system of government, learned to speak the language and adapted many American values,” she said.

Charry Anna Marie, a member of All Saints Parish in Berlin, is a friend of Belgado’s, and explained the importance of the Christmas celebrations to the Filipino people.

They are an “important part to building a strong bond between family and our Filipino community,” she said. “They give us a sense of belonging and a way to express what is important to us. They connect us to our history and help us celebrate generations of family. … We Filipinos just love festivities. It is important for us to pass this beautiful tradition to the younger generations away from our homeland.”

Lorna Javier, a member of Resurrection Parish in Wausau, added, “It is very important to keep the Christmas tradition especially for the young people to remind them to always remember our roots — and that we should always try to be united Filipinos away from home.”

Now in his sixth year of living in the Diocese of Green Bay, Fr. Pigon puts the Filipino celebration of Christmas this way.

“I guess, (the) same as the people here in Wisconsin, Filipinos love to celebrate and say ‘Happy Holidays’ for the very special day of the very special child,” he said. “He is the one that gives us life to live; the one whose love consumes us; the one why we come together and feast. And we love to show and share who he is — Jesus Christ is Lord.”