Diverse North Carolina Mission Community Celebrates January Feast Day

Posted: 1/3/2013

Celebration of feast of Santo Nino in Windsor, N.C.During visits to Glenmary's Windsor, N.C., mission several years ago, long before he became pastor in 2011, Father Mike Kerin noticed a small statue of the infant Jesus on the rectory's fireplace mantle. The figure had a golden crown on his head, held a golden orb resembling Earth in his left hand, and held up his right hand in a sign of blessing. The child was dressed in a red velvet cape—covered with white and golden embroidery—and golden shoes.

"I vaguely knew that the statue was connected to the Filipino mission members. But I had never seen it before and didn't understand its significance," says Father Mike.

Today as pastor, though, he knows that this statue of Jesus, the Señor Santo Niño de Cebú (Holy Child of Cebu), represents a cherished part of the Filipinos' Catholic religious heritage, which they brought with them from their homeland when they began arriving in Bertie County, N.C., in 2003.

And since the mission was established in late 2004, the entire mission community has celebrated the feast of the Señor Santo Niño on the third Sunday in January. The day's celebration of faith is called Sinulog.

The English-speaking Windsor mission members are of Filipino, Anglo, African American and Hawaiian descent. The majority are Filipino immigrants who came to Bertie County when many were recruited to teach in Windsor schools.

T he Windsor mission is like other Glenmary missions in its diversity and warm welcome of all people, following Jesus' Gospel message: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Mt 25:35) Residents of Glenmary mission counties often include recently arrived Catholic immigrants who have come to this country to work or join their families. These immigrants bring their culture, traditions and, most importantly, their faith. And welcoming people to the missions also means respecting their Catholic religious traditions, says Father Mike.

For instance, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December is of major importance for Latinos. As sacramental minister to Glenmary's Plymouth, N.C., mission, Father Mike also helps lead that community's celebration of this feast.

T he Filipinos brought a deep and active faith with them," says Father Mike, "and this faith is seen in their devotion to the Santo Niño." Every Filipino family in the Windsor mission parish has its own Santo Niño statue in a prominent location at home. "Our parish also has the wonderful and inspiring tradition of a weekly prayer service hosted by a parish family," he points out. "And whenever it's held in the home of a Filipino mission member, the statue is placed on a table and is surrounded by several candles and often a Bible or rosary."

The original Santo Niño statue came to the Philippines in the early 16th century with explorer Ferdinand Magellan and Spanish Catholic missionaries. It was given to the queen of Cebu, who chose to convert to Christianity and be baptized along with the king. The statue gained prominence later when it miraculously survived a great fire in 1565.

Mission member Monette Baluyot says "Sinulog is a celebration of thanksgiving for all that we have received. Believers are touched by the Santo Niño in many ways."

And fellow mission member Bob Occena adds that the celebration "reminds Filipinos of their rich and diverse religious and cultural heritage."

At Mass on that third Sunday of January, Father Mike says, "We add prayers for the feast at the Prayer of the Faithful, and sing hymns during Mass in honor of the feast. Then we host a large celebration event, open to the whole community, at the local convention center later that day."

As in previous years, he says, this year's community Sinulog celebration at the convention center will include a great deal of music and singing, traditional folk dancing, and "incredibly delicious" food. "I also give a blessing sometime during the celebration. The entire mission community gets involved, and we fill the center."

The members of the Windsor mission always invite others to join them. "Many people who would never set foot inside a Catholic church or attend a Catholic Mass," says Father Mike, "come to Sinulog to celebrate with their friends, neighbors and coworkers."

This event also attracts visitors from other parts of North Carolina as well as Virginia and Maryland.

The early Spanish missionaries in the Philippines helped spread the Gospel of Jesus and devotion to the Santo Niño, Father Mike says. "I find it amazing that the same missionary spirit and Catholic faith is now beginning to spread very slowly in eastern North Carolina.

"The Santo Niño is helping us evangelize in rural Bertie County. Other county residents are seeing their Catholic brothers and sisters' deep commitment to Jesus, and their desire and willingness to celebrate this feast with food, song and dance."

These days, he says, he no longer sees just a statue sitting on the mantle in the Windsor rectory. "I recognize that the same Jesus is active here in this Glenmary mission area."