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African Catholics in New York find community at French Mass

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French Mass African Disapora (Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved)

When Landry Felix Uwamungu Ganza moved to New York from Rwanda last August, the Columbia University freshman searched for a sanctuary, a sacred place to perform his Sunday morning rituals just as he had in House.

He ventured to the nearest Catholic parish, Notre Dame Church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of his new town, and to his surprise found the familiar rhythms of Mass being celebrated in French, a language he grew up hearing from the beginning. pulpit.

“It was more related to what I know from home,” he said.

The French language has its roots in the history of the New York City church, founded as a chapel in 1910 by French missionaries of the Mercy Fathers. Immigrants from France who lived on the Upper West Side in the early 20th century once filled the pews of Notre Dame. Today, it is African Catholics who worship at the service in French, one of the three languages ​​in which their priests celebrate Mass on Sundays.

The linguistic units of the parishioners: a diverse African diaspora living in the city and neighboring states, many of whom are from former French and Belgian colonies in West and Central Africa, such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo and Congo .

“The African community here comes from different countries with their own languages, so French is really important to bring them all together as their common language,” said the Rev. Michael Holleran, the assistant pastor, who learned French as a Carthusian monk in France. . .

Although Catholic rituals are the same regardless of language, for many the ability to worship in French is spiritual.

“For me it is better to understand the Scriptures, the Gospel, and I feel more spiritually fulfilled when I am in the French community,” said Monique Degny-Oulai, a long-time parishioner from the Ivory Coast.

Uwamungu Ganza is more comfortable attending French Mass at his new parish, although he is fluent in English and Kinyarwanda, the common language in Rwanda, and he especially likes the choir.

“They sing songs that I know, so I feel like I connect more,” she said.

Holleran believes that the strength of the French Mass lies in its multinational choir, the Chorale Sainte Marie Reine. Sylvestre Kouadio, a self-taught musician who leads it, infuses the rhythms and styles of African musical traditions such as highlife and coupé-décalé into new songs and existing anthems.

“The music and lyrics are very vibrant, upbeat and very devoted,” said Holleran. “It really sets the tone for the whole Mass. Mass will be completely different without them.”

The choir, founded in 1998 at the now-closed St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, moved to Notre Dame in 2013 along with members of the closed parish. The influx of St. Vincent de Paul prompted church leaders to revive Notre Dame’s long-suspended French-language service, earning it the designation of the official French-language Mass of the Archdiocese of New York.

“This place, we call it a second home away from home,” said Kouadio, who is from the Ivory Coast. “Your relationship with God is something you want to be able to talk to him about, understand, and be comfortable with.”

It not only provides community and comfort, but also a sense of home, said Solange Kouakou, who is also from the Ivory Coast and sings alto in the choir. She commutes on Sunday mornings from New Jersey.

“When we come, it feels like our country. When you see your community, you feel welcome,” she said.

Despite the preference for French Mass on Sundays, some parishioners, especially newcomers to the US, also attend English Mass on other days of the week for practical and spiritual reasons.

“On Saturdays I go to a mass in English to listen and improve my English,” said Jean-Paul Gomis, who came to the United States from Senegal two years ago.

Charlene Goncalves, who met her boyfriend at Notre Dame, now speaks English fluently but feels more spiritually fulfilled when she practices her faith in French.

“I was raised and learned all the prayers in French, so it makes sense for me to go to a church that speaks my native language,” said Goncalves, who is of Cape Verdean descent but grew up in Paris.

“The only thing I can’t do in English is pray.”

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Associated Press religious coverage is supported through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.


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