Filipinos celebrate Simbang Gabi

Anne Marie Amacher
Members of the Filipino-American Association of the Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities sing and play instruments during the Simband Gabi Mass Dec. 3 at St. John Vianney Church in Bettendorf.

By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

BETTENDORF — Filipino American Catholics celebrated Simbang Gabi (Mass at Night) Dec. 3 at St. John Vianney Catholic Church with Father Denis Hatungimana presiding.

Traditionally, Filipinos in the Philippines celebrate Simbang Gabi in the early morning hours, but the Filipino-American Association of the Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities usually celebrates the Mass on a weekend at St. John Vianney.

Father Joseph Sia, a native of the Philippines, traditionally celebrates the Mass and Father Hatungimana has previously concelebrated. Father Sia was unable to preside at the Mass this year, so Father Hatungimana accepted the invitation, although he said he was in shock. “I never knew one day I would say this Mass (myself).”


He serves at parishes in Burlington-West Burlington and presides at Mass in French in Iowa City and Muscatine. His brother priests in the parishes he serves gave their blessings for him to preside at the Simbang Gabi Mass.

During his homily, Father Hatungimana said it is important to keep Christ in all celebrations. If “you lose traditions, you lose your roots. If you lose your foundation, you lose your identity. I am glad you keep your identity as a community of believers. Congratulations.”

He encouraged the congregation to maintain their sense of preparation during Advent and, reflecting on Matthew’s Gospel, to heed the message of John the Baptist to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Father Hatungimana said that if he were to visit any of the homes of the congregation and saw the decorations, he would know it means, “Our hearts are shining to receive the child Jesus in our hearts.”

He asked the congregation, “How can we make our hearts shine?” Penance, someone finally called out. The priest asked everyone to receive the sacrament of reconciliation before Christmas. “Why should you? What do you get?” he asked. Graces, several people answered. “Yes, you receive the graces to receive Christ.”

As Mass concluded, Cecilia Bernas of the Filipino community, thanked Father Hatungimana for being a friend to their community since his arrival in 2016. “He knows our culture from working with us.” Father Hatungimana had some familiarity with Filipino traditions and their faith-filled spirit from working with a religious sister when he lived and worked in his homeland in Africa. “She introduced me to the Filipino culture.” Bernas and the Filipino community wished Father Hatungimana a fond farewell, as he will return to Africa in March 2023.

Father Hatungimana said, “I have learned a lot from you — a people of faith. You try to put Jesus ahead of you. You are a loving community.”

Following Mass, a reception with homemade, traditional Filipino food was served. Father Hatungimana blessed the food before leaving for Burlington.

Bernas said the Filipino community members come from around a 50-mile radius to attend the yearly Mass — as well as other events planned during the year.

Many men wore traditional barong tagalong – typically a very lightweight fabric that is embroidered and in a cream color. Women wore traditional kimono tops in a variety of colors, but primarily a cream or red.

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