Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., greets a toddler and her smiling family during a Simbang Gabi celebration Dec. 19 in St. Gregory the Great Church, Hamilton Square. Bishop O’Connell was the celebrant and homilist. John Blaine photos

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., greets a toddler and her smiling family during a Simbang Gabi celebration Dec. 19 in St. Gregory the Great Church, Hamilton Square. Bishop O’Connell was the celebrant and homilist. John Blaine photos



Story by Lois Rogers | Correspondent

For more than two decades, the enduring Filipino Advent tradition of Simbang Gabi – a nine-day novena of spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ – has unfolded seamlessly in coordinated diocesan-wide observances.

This year, Simbang Gabi, with its focus on gathering the community together in prayer and devotion, was held in 27 parishes throughout Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties from Dec. 2 to Dec. 23.

Photo Gallery: Bishop celebrates Mass for Simbang Gabi 2017

Traditionally held in the early morning hours, the timeline is different in New Jersey, said organizers, including Suzette Rysz of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, because rising in the dark of morning in a cold climate would pose a hardship. So, the novena takes place during the evening.

On the evening of Dec. 19, the celebrant and homilist in St. Gregory the Great Church was Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

The Bishop’s presence added to the solemnity, devotion and participation there, said Rysz, who along with her husband, Fred, have been among the many coordinators of the Simbang Gabi cycle for 11 years.

“The thing with Simbang Gabi is that we really want to share our spiritual and cultural practices with everyone. It is not just limited to the Filipino community,” Rysz said.

Having Bishop O’Connell as the celebrant this year “really added to the observance. He gave a very meaningful homily explaining what each day of the novena means,” she said.

“More people came than usual,” she added. “There were between 250 and 300 people present – a very good turnout. Everyone was excited that he was coming to our Mass.”

Simbang Gabi, which has deep roots in the religious culture of the Philippines, harks back to the 1500s, when the Spanish arrived and led the first celebration of the Nativity. Also known as “night worship,” the name comes from gathering for the celebration of the Eucharist in the pre-dawn hours on each of the nine days before Christmas. Devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary are also very much a part of the observance.

On the last day of Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve in the Philippines, churches throughout the country ring their bells anywhere between 3 and 5:30 a.m., and faithful rise in the darkness to attend the Misa de Gallo – Spanish for “Mass of the Rooster,” a joyful liturgy held in churches around the nation followed by festive family and community meals.

St. Gregory the Great pastor, Father Michael McClane, said the parish enjoys hosting the event every year in anticipation of Christmas and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“I enjoy experiencing the cultural traditions of Catholics from around the world, and this is one of those opportunities,” he said.

That concept was echoed by Deacon Glen Mendonca of St. Joseph Parish, Keyport, a long-standing member of Monmouth County’s Simbang Gabi committee who helped bring the observance to his parish.

He said Father Rene Pulgarin has boosted interest in the observance in the overall church community since arriving as pastor in 2016. “He’s gone out of his way to meet people from the Filipino community after Masses, and announcements have been made about it after every Mass. We had 143 people here on the last day,” Deacon Mendonca said.

When the novena closed in Monmouth County with the Misa de Gallo on Dec. 23 in Eatontown’s St. Dorothea Church, there were 450 faithful present, Deacon Mendonca said.

“There were seven priests concelebrating, prayers in various … dialects, readings in Tagalog. It was great fellowship at every Mass. People came whether there was rain or snow,” he said.

Wilhelmina Abela-Bamba, St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, and Marlene Legaspi, Nativity of Our Lord Parish, Monroe Township, help coordinate Simbang Gabi in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. The novena is a multifaceted Advent gift for everyone, they said.

“It’s a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and preparation prior to Christmas,” Abela-Bamba said. “It keeps the Filipino tradition alive for the kids and those who are away from home. Keeping this tradition is a gift to them of faith; it boosts awareness of devotion.”

Recognizing that not all children attend a Catholic school, she shared her joy that one of the youngsters took the Simbang Gabi brochure to public school and shared it with the class.

“She is only 10 years old, and there she was sharing the tradition. It made me so proud,” Abela-Bamba said.

Legaspi expressed her joy in the fact that it’s a chance for everyone to “prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus. The importance for me is to reflect the faith and belief in Jesus Christ.