A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is carried during the Santacruzan procession. Joe Moore photos
A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is carried during the Santacruzan procession. Joe Moore photos

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

The Filipino community’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the love of colorful festivals blended seamlessly on the grounds of Toms River’s St. Luke Parish May 18 as the joyous commemorations of Flores de Mayo and Santacruzan were held for the first time in Ocean County.

Photo Gallery: Santacruzan Festival in Ocean County 2019

Santacruzan is the culmination of the month long celebration of “Flores de Mayo,” or “Flowers of May,” honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. An historical religious celebration in the Philippines, it commemorates the search for the True Cross by Queen Helena and her son, Roman emperor Constantine the Great. Processions serve as a reenactment of the Cross' finding, led by “Sagalas,” lovely girls representing queens and the other titles of Mary, and the “Reya Elena” or Queen Helena.

In St. Luke Parish, the festival opened with a procession around the campus. The community would join the parish in its regular 4 p.m. Vigil Mass celebrated by Father Robert Grodnicki, St. Luke pastor, and concelebrated by Father Alex Enriquez, administrator of St. Monica Parish, Jackson.

But the neighborhood was treated to the first glimpse of this venerable festival.

At 2 p.m., scores of young ladies dressed as Reynas (Queens) and their escorts in their very best joined Sagalas representing different epochs in biblical and religious history and angels as they stepped out onto the campus for the procession that is a traditional highlight of the festival wherever it is held.

Under bright, blue skies, members of multiple generations – grandparents, parents and children – followed the procession of beautifully costumed young people. They walked reverently, angels, Methuselah, the Virgin Mary and all, under 18 bedecked arches constructed by Dr. Jess and Jasmine Alcid of St. Luke Parish.

The arches, built to last as one of the organizers, Ester Tambor, put it, had been decorated by their own parents with blooms symbolic of Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May), which is celebrated in the Philippines where flowers are in bloom.

For many, including Celine Iledan, grandmother of Jason B. Buenaflor who played Constantine, son of Queen Helena, the procession brought back many warm memories. "I'm so happy they could do this here," said Iledan, who last saw the Santacruzan in the Philippines as a child. "It helps me relive the experience again."

Ocean County’s Santacruzan was sponsored by the Filipino-American Community Center, Inc., and its school – the Filipino-Amercan Cultural Enrichment School (FACES). It joins the Santacruzon in St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton, which celebrated its eighth annual event May 18.

Tambor, a member of the board who teaches Filipino Culture in the school, said the Santacruzan has been a good way to increase participation by both the students and their parents in the cultural outreach. “We’re growing as a community and we are trying to given the students the skills in arts and cooking and the like to help them appreciate their culture,” Tambor said.

Ocean County’s Santacruzan was inspired by the large celebration in Jersey City, in operation for 41 years, which was visited by another board member, Jocelyn Babuschak.” During the break between the procession and the Mass, she shared her joy in the fact that the moment she waited for a long time was finally here.

“My dream for the longest time since I attended the Santacruzan in Jersey City was putting it together and bringing it here. It’s a blessing," Babuschak said.

Indeed, Father Grodnicki, in his opening remarks to Massgoers, expressed the same sentiment saying he readily agreed when asked by organizers if the event could be held in St. Luke Parish. “It’s a new experience,” he said. “What's happening tonight is different and it’s an old tradition that is held annually in the Philippines. It embodies the gifts of the Filipino community and it’s a great honor for us to be part of that tradition.”

That’s exactly how Stanley and Lorraine Kaleda saw it. The couple, members of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, said they were very enthusiastic about the number of children and young families celebrating the Santacruzan.

“The children are the future of the Church,” Stanley Kaleda said. “This is a close knit community where family life is at the heart. We’re very glad to have been there for this.”