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Simbang Gabi celebration draws hundreds to St. Martha church

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By Malie Hudson 

MURRIETA—Southern California has the world’s largest Filipino population outside the Philippines. Their rich culture has had significant impact in the region as well as within the Catholic Church, particularly with the gift of Simbang Gabi, a Filipino tradition celebrated during Advent.  

 Filipinos and non-Filipinos from 45 organized parish Filipino ministries in the Diocese of San Bernardino gathered at St. Martha Parish in Murrieta on December 9 to celebrate the Simbang Gabi Opening Mass with Bishop Gerald Barnes serving as chief celebrant. 

 “Part of Simbang Gabi is what follows the Mass, a continued celebration of the people of God,” said Bishop Barnes. “Let this night be a new beginning of what we pray for and what we pledge for our families, our church, our country and the world. Let us keep hope alive.”

 Simbang Gabi, a Tagalog term that means “Mass at night,” is a Christmas tradition that honors the Blessed Virgin Mary’s motherhood and the infant Jesus, therefore making the celebration festive and joyful unlike the more solemn and penitential Advent Masses.  

 Simbang Gabi is a consecutive nine-day novena of Masses that begins on December 15 and culminates on Christmas Eve. It is derived from a Mexican tradition of the Christmas novena of outdoor Masses called Las Posadas, which commemorate Mary and Joseph’s search for an inn to birth Jesus. 

 Spanish missionaries introduced the custom to the Philippines in the 1700’s, holding outdoor Masses for the Filipino farmers who were off to work the fields before dawn and the fishermen returning from a night of fishing. The Filipinos were introduced to the Marian devotion and the nine-day Novena, making Simbang Gabi an annual spiritual tradition in the Philippines. 

 The Filipino customs, music and food were infused into the religious celebration over time including a street procession of parols, which are star-shaped colorful paper lanterns that glowed with light from candles. The brightly lit parols represented the star that guided the Three Kings to Bethlehem. 

 Immigrant Filipinos brought the tradition to the Diocese in the 1990’s. Bishop Barnes celebrated the first official Simbang Gabi Opening Mass 24 years ago, a year after he became the first auxiliary bishop of the Diocese. 

 The opening Mass at St. Martha continued the tradition with a focus on the community strengthening their relationship with God and with each other. 

 “This is how we gather the community to see each other and be able to unify and show that we are all together as Filipinos in sharing our customs and traditions,” said Lilibeth Lucinario, coordinator of the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish Filipino Ministry  in Beaumont. “And this is one tradition that is very important to us. This brings back so many memories and feeling of home.” 

 Mariz Garcia, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Parish in Rancho Cucamonga, agrees. 

 “I remember going to Mass at five in the morning and we used to walk to church since we didn’t have transportation that early, and then go back home and then go to school after,” she recalls. “We would do it for nine days and it’s a joyful process so when Christmas Eve comes, we feel that we actually understood how mama Mary had Jesus in her womb as a young woman.” 

 After emigrating to the United States and later starting her career, Garcia admits that for a while she lost touch with the spirit of Simbang Gabi. But as time went by she said she longed for the tradition and the feeling it gave her. She began to search for Simbang Gabi observances and eventually got involved.

 “When I moved to the Inland Empire, I found some churches were offering the nine days and it was so amazing,” she said. “At Sacred Heart [Rancho Cucamonga], we were able to start novena of Masses in 1997.”

 Before the Mass began, a procession of banners by a representative from each of the 45 parishes and symbolic images were brought to the altar. The parol led the procession of images followed by a globe that represents unity, a statue of Our Lady of Peach and Good Voyage, flowers, a bamboo cross,  a statue of the Holy Family and St. Lorenzo Ruiz (the first Filipino saint), and ending with images of St. Pedro Calungsod and Blessed Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo. 

 The multilingual Mass was concelebrated by ten Filipino priests with the Filipino Catholic Community Choir providing beautiful music. 

 “This symbolizes our Catholic faith to God and family,” said Nick Bautista, a St. Martha parishioner. “The faith of Filipino Catholics is that we believe in God and serve in the mercy of God.” 

 Tiffany Mendoza and her husband grew up at St. Martha parish and have been a part of the Simbang Gabi celebration since 1998. The couple carried the statue of the Holy Family to the altar during the procession along with their 18-month-old son, Mateo. 

 “Now that we have a son, we would like him to also be a part of that culture and tradition. I was honored to walk with the statue this year because it represents our family and it means a little bit more now that we have our own son,” she said.

 After the Mass, the faithful gathered in the parish hall to dance, sing and eat traditional food, which are all part of the culture’s theme of family, faith and unity. 


Malie Hudson is a freelance writer based on Riverside.