Philadelphia parish reflects global church with Mass in Swahili for immigrant Catholics

By Colleen Boyle Sharp
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – More than 200 Kenyan Catholics gathered at St. Katherine of Siena Church in Philadelphia April 11 to celebrate a Mass in Swahili.

The groups, which represented Kenyan communities living in the United States from Baltimore, New York, Washington, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, are part of a growing number of Kenyan Catholics who are looking to stay connected with their African heritage while fostering their Catholic faith.

Father Patrick Gitonga, a student priest from Meru, Kenya, living at St. Katherine Parish stressed the importance of these support groups to the central African immigrants.

“Catholic Kenyans are getting lost in other churches when they come to the United States,” he said. “They need to know that as Catholics we are here for them and that we support them.”

The Philadelphia group, named St. Gabriel’s Small Christian Community, began about five years ago with just seven people. Today it numbers 30, mostly parishioners of St. Agatha-St. James Parish in West Philadelphia. George Mbiu, the St. Gabriel group organizer, said his goal is to see the group grow to include more families.

“It’s so important for us to teach our children the ways of the Church,” said Mbiu, a father of three. “We want them to get involved in prayer life, the rosary and to teach them what their Catholic faith is all about. They are our future.”

Mbui, who was born in the central part of Kenya, immigrated to the United States eight years ago with his wife and children after winning a green card lottery. The lottery, a congressionally mandated program for receiving U.S. permanent residence, allows 50,000 permanent visas to be issued annually to persons from countries with low rates of immigration.

The small Christian communities that have developed in the United States mimic the faith sharing that Kenyans experience at home. A poor country with large parishes and limited priests, the Kenyan dioceses rely on catechists who help the faithful with celebrating the liturgy of the Word when the Eucharist cannot be celebrated.

The small Christian communities bring devoted parishioners together in communal prayer as a way to strengthen their faith.

Since 33 percent of Kenya’s population is Roman Catholic, the need for groups like the one Mbiu initiated in the Archdiocese is significant.

The Philadelphia St. Gabriel Small Christian Community meets one Sunday afternoon a month in a member’s home. The group prays the rosary, reads Scripture, prays for each other’s intentions and then shares a meal. The Baltimore group – from which the Philadelphia group originally drew inspiration – now counts more than 50 members.

Besides Father Gitonga’s duties as a student and resident priest he has been reaching out to other Catholic Kenyan communities and helping to organize other Swahili liturgies.

Father Paul Kennedy, pastor of St. Katherine of Siena Parish, said he encouraged the Swahili Mass and saw it as an opportunity for his parishioners to experience the universality of the Catholic Church.

“This was a wonderful chance for us as a parish to witness something most of us may never have the opportunity to take part in again,” he said. “Having the Mass celebrated in Swahili put us in a position where we were the outsiders for a change, and it reminded us that the Church and the world does not begin and end here.”

Father Gitonga has been studying counseling and psychology at Holy Family University but will be returning home to the Kenyan Diocese of Meru later this year.

“My hope,” he said, “is that as the small Christian communities here continue to grow, that they encourage each other, strengthen each other and that their faith continues to bring them together.”