Ethan Paguiligan of Incarnation-St. James Parish, Ewing, carries a violet star during the entrance procession of the Mass celebrated Dec. 22 in St. Paul Church. Hal Brown photos
Ethan Paguiligan of Incarnation-St. James Parish, Ewing, carries a violet star during the entrance procession of the Mass celebrated Dec. 22 in St. Paul Church. Hal Brown photos
" Celebrating Simbang Gabi makes us feel like we are home. "
Reviving the time-honored Filipino tradition of celebrating the novena of Masses leading up to Christmas Eve, members of the faith-rich community have followed a series of nine liturgies at different parishes throughout the four counties of the Trenton Diocese this year. The ninth and final Mass of Simbang Gabi in Mercer County took place Dec. 23 in St. Ann Church, Lawrenceville.

In St. Paul Church, Princeton, the eighth of the nine Mercer County Masses was celebrated Dec. 22 by Father Carlo Calisin, St. Paul parochial vicar, concelebrated by Father John Paul del Rosario, a visiting priest assisting for the holidays nearby in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown. The Mass was livestreamed for those viewing from home.

Photo Gallery: Simbang Gabi Mass in St. Paul Church, Princeton

To view the recorded livestream of Simbang Gabi Mass in St. Paul Church, visit

Eight-year-old Ethan Paguiligan, member of Incarnation-St. James Parish, Ewing, carried a vibrant violet star in the opening procession. The star, with “St. Paul” printed in the middle, joined stars from other participating parishes in the Dec. 23 Mass in St. Ann Church. Music for the liturgy was led by a group of musicians hailing from various parishes throughout the Diocese.

Welcoming the Filipino community in both English and Tagalog, Father Calisin – originally from the Philippines himself – recalled the Simbang Gabi tradition as an opportunity not only to showcase their culture and traditions through preparing special foods, but also to highlight the spiritual food of the Eucharist.

“Advent is a joyful season,” he noted, “a season to give back to those in need... we are invited to play the trumpet with joy.”

Pointing to the evening’s Gospel proclaimed by Father del Rosario from the Book of Luke, and the feature of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Magnificat, Father Calisin asked in his homily, “Do you sometimes feel like singing or humming a tune when you are overjoyed? That feeling multiplied many times is what the Blessed Mother must have felt when she proclaimed her Magnificat – one of the great hymns of the Church.

“During the Visitation, when she visits Elizabeth,” he continued, “St. John reacts [in Elizabeth’s womb] with joy [because] God has visited them. This is why we are joyful in the Christmas season – God has visited us.”

Joy, he emphasized, comes to those “who seek the presence of God – those who surrender, who are simple and humble, who put serving the poor before themselves… I encourage all of you to have a simple yet meaningful Christmas. Welcome Jesus to reign in your lives, in our community and our world… and don’t forget to be joyful.”

Following the Simbang Gabi tradition has been an important part of Ethan’s growing up; his father, Julius Paguiligan, and mother, Teresa Canada, as well as cousin Zane Canada, nine, joined him for the liturgy.

“He has always loved to sing,” Teresa said, noting that Ethan knew the closing song of the Mass long before he could read the words.

“I followed the lyrics even when I was little,” Ethan confirmed. “They told me I could either bring in the star or sing [this year with the other musicians] – my grandma said I should hold up the star!”

The star, he explained, symbolizes “when the Three Kings were looking for Jesus, and they were lost, they used the star as a guide.”

Madison Fajardo, member of St. Paul Parish and eighth grader in St. Paul School, was altar server for the St. Paul Simbang Gabi Mass. She has been an altar server for four years and also occasionally ministers as reader.

“Simbang Gabi is a great way to join in the Filipino community together,” she attested, noting how she enjoys playing an active role. “We love to have people participate and new people to join us!”

Her parents, Cathy and Rom Fajardo, attended the Mass as well, with Cathy reading the Call to Worship before the entrance hymn.

Traditionally in the Filippines the Simbang Gabi Masses are celebrated at dawn, which Cathy pointed out “is a sacrifice in preparation for Christmas.”

“Celebrating Simbang Gabi makes us feel like we are home,” she emphasized. “We’ve been parishioners here for more than 20 years, and this celebration is special… for Filipinos, Christmas is one of the happiest times of year – this is the spiritual part of it; it brings families together.”