By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City — Despite the heated and hateful electoral campaign season sweeping the country, Filipinos here take time to gather and celebrate Christmas just like home. On 5th Avenue, the Philippine Consulate has become the center for the traditional Simbang Gabi (night masses that culminate on Christmas eve, December 24) since it was restored two years ago by the New York Archdiocese. For this year, the Simbang Gabi sa Konsulado started on December 7 and will end on December 15 with several organizations taking turns in organizing the mass and feast every night.
And early this month, the Christmas caroling contest kicked off and was eagerly participated by five organizations in New York and New Jersey. The Filipino Christian Reform Church of NJ (3rd prize winner), the Filipino-American Society of St. Joan of Arc Parish (1st prize winner), the JCI – Philippine New York, the Filipino-American Accountants in NY (2nd prize winner), and the Team United Maharlika Foundation Inc. rendered Christmas carols so familiar and close to the heart such as Ang Pasko ay Sumapit and Pasko na Sinta Ko.
Initiated by the Synergy Productions and Marketing and the Western Union, there was an spontaneous anticipation that this ought to be another tradition for the community here. Teacher Ernesto Pamolarco, for one, gave a thumbs up to the event and looked forward to a caroling contest in 2016.
Grace Labaguis, owner and operations manager of Synergy Production and Marketing, said that with the enthusiasm of the participants this year, she is encouraged to hold the Christmas caroling contest next year and beyond.
Fr. Glenn Ragsag, parish priest in Staten Island, in his homily during the third night of the Simbang Gabi commended the active participation of Filipinos in practicing their faith by celebrating Christmas. His message was relevant and striking, citing the need for people ‘who are tired’ to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes in order to understand the burdens of others and to gain enthusiasm in life.
Simbang Gabi – Story of Unity
The Simbang Gabi has been going on at the Philippine Consulate for 28 years now, since the time of Consul General Fe Fuentebella in 1987. The glittering parol (lanterns) that adorn the Kalayaan Hall and the Consulate lobby were shipped to NYC to inculcate the spirit for the celebration of the night masses.
Community leader Juliet Payabyab, president of the United Mindoro International, a community organization of New Yorkers who are natives of the province of Mindoro, recalls “it was participated by community organizations, with contests at the end of each night such as group singing then followed by the usual fellowship downstairs at the lobby. As we moved on, more and more big organizations joined. The event was always community-based meaning community leaders were free to do their own programs, get their own priest and serve food.”
The well-loved Simbang Gabi tradition was suddenly stopped in 2013 after a month’s notice. “The Philippine Consulate received a letter from Cardinal Timothy Dolan saying that we can no longer hold masses at the Kalayaan Hall. The reason given was that of a specific Canon Law that does not allow masses to be held in a non-parish establishment or church,” she said.
Although everything had been prepared for the 2013 tradition, the organizations had to cancel the Simbang Gabi. The following year, several groups lobbied for the return of the night masses. An appeal letter was written by Consul General Mario de Leon and then Deputy Consul General Tess de Vega for the archdiocese.
A core committee was formed to focus on the appeal. Aside from Payabyab, there was Lumen Castaneda, Vivian Cruz, Nida Cortez, Ilo Wallenstein, Ave Pimo, and Fe Martinez who personally delivered the letter to Cardinal Dolan’s office. It remained unanswered for a few weeks prompting more appeal letters sent by other groups. Lawyer and businesswoman Loida Nicolas Lewis, head of the US-Pinoy for Good Governance, also made a personal appeal.
“I think she spoke to Cardinal Dolan about the situation. It helped greatly our appeal for its return,” Payabyab said.
In lieu of the Simbang Gabi, the Filipino community put together a Panunuluyan in 2013, a play reflecting the birth of Jesus which was participated by community leaders. It also ran for nine nights. “In 2014, we got the good news that we can resume the Simbang Gabi.”
Payabyab said they were so excited when the Simbang Gabi was restored. “Although no reason was given by the archdiocese, we did not insist on finding out why it was restored. It was enough that we can practice our faith as a community again.”
(The featured photo, by Jujo Conol, are community leaders r-l: Consuelo Almonte, this writer, Lumen Castaneda, and Jujo Conol.)