When the Filipino Catholic community gets together for a feast, expect a celebration that almost aways includes prayer, food and dancing.
So says Filipino priest Efren Esmilla, the newly appointed auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who for the last year has been celebrating a monthly bilingual Mass at St. Elizabeth Church in Wilmington. The Mass is bilingual as it is celebrated in Tagalog and English, serving both those who use the Austronesian language and others not as familiar with it, the bishop-designate said.
He returns for the monthly Mass in Wilmington Jan. 21, a special day among Filipino Catholics. An annual feast honoring Santo Niño called “Sinulog” is celebrated on the third Sunday in January in the Philippines. It includes a religious image of the Christ child widely venerated as miraculous.
“It is a big celebration and a continuation of the Christmas season in the Philippines, honoring and adoring our Santo Nino,” Bishop-designate Esmilla said in a telephone interview. “There is a lot of dancing and prayers. It is not only the Filipinos now. There are also some Americans who are joining the Mass.
“The Filipinos after the Mass always have fellowship,” he said. “There is always food after the Mass. That’s part of the culture.”
The Mass also includes music from the Filipino choir, which was led for more than 30 years by Norma Abrenica.
“She is a woman of great faith and very much enjoys working with parishes and choirs,” said Father Roger DiBuo, pastor of St. Elizabeth in Wilmington and former pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Bear. “She has been a leader in the Filipino community and has been very well-known in many parishes over the decades. The choir brings beautiful Filipino music to the Mass.”
Abrenica, 85, of New Castle, said it was more than 40 years ago that she began serving church choirs in New Castle County parishes that included St. John the Beloved and Holy Spirit. She has attempted to retire from her duties as pianist at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Bear, but says when she shows up at church people still coax her to play a musical selection or two before Mass.
“I’ve been so blessed because people like what I do and it makes people feel good,” she said. “I like all kinds of music but especially liturgical music. I answered the call from the Lord because he blessed me with the ability.”
The culture of so many Filipinos is focused on the Catholic church, she said.
“The Filipinos are very religious people,” she said. “Whether it is snowing or raining, they are there. They have such dedication.”
And food, which she is not bashful about claiming as one of her other strengths.
“They all like my cooking,” she said. “I’m a very good cook. We always have a lot of food.”
The bishop-designate said he hopes to continue his monthly commitment in Wilmington.
“As long as I’m available, I would like to continue my service there,” said Bishop-designate Esmilla, who is also pastor of two parishes in the archdiocese. “As my mother always said, I’m here to serve.”
The episcopal ordination for Bishop-designate Esmilla and two other new auxiliary bishops in Philadelphia is set for March 7 at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Archbishop Nelson Pérez will be the principal consecrator.