As one of the fastest growing minority groups in the archdiocese, the Filipino community blends devout traditions and unique cultural celebrations to create a distinct niche in the Catholic community.
According to the Asian American Federation Web site at http://www.aafny.org, New Jersey's Asian American population nearly doubled from 1990 to 2000, making it the fifth-largest Asian population at the state level. As 18 percent of the New Jersey's Asian population, Filipinos bring fervent Catholic faith to the Archdiocese of Newark while emphasizing family values and community spirit.
Maribel Fajardo, co-director of the Filipino Society of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Secaucus, has been a leader in the Filipino community for almost 20 years. "I see the change and increased presence of Filipinos. There has been a big increase in the community at my parish, Immaculate Conception. Filipinos are very family oriented and bring that aspect to the Church. Family life is usually centered around the Church."
The Philippines is one of only two majority Christian countries in Asia. According to the 2000 Census of Population and Housing conducted by the National Statistics Office in Manila, (Web site: http://www.census.gov.ph) about 90 percent of Filipinos are Christians and 81 percent are Catholic. "Each town in the Philippines celebrates a saint and feasts of the Blessed Virgin are very important," Fajardo explained.
As a way of uniting the burgeoning Filipino community in her area, Fajardo felt it was important to continue celebrating.
A shy but curious youngster finds her own unique vantage point in the pews during the Filipino Mass. Passing on Catholic traditions to American-born children is impor¬tant in the Filipino community.
Catholic traditions. "By making Immaculate Conception Parish the center of all the Filipino community’s activities, we appeal to a larger cross-section of people. Every activity of the Filipino society was associated with a religious celebration; that drew people to our church. Filipinos became more comfortable with participating in the mainstream."
Through the Church, those newly emigrated felt they had a strong connection to their new home in America through their faith. "As immigrants, we felt like outsiders in the Church and were sometimes treated that way by the established community. I always encouraged people to become eucharistic ministers, lectors and readers. I encouraged parents to let their children become altar servers. Now more than half of the altar servers are Filipino," Fajardo remarked with a laugh.
Fajardo came to America from the Philippines in 1974 and at first did not participate in parish activities. "I was never really active. I just attended Mass and didn't feel as though I could contribute. I felt as though (my parish) didn’t need me. It's hard severing ties to your home in the Philippines, but that is the benefit of having a close-knit community — you feel as though you belong here and you do not feel so lonely."
Celebrations such as the Advent novena of Simbang Gabi (See The Catholic Advocate Dec. 6, 2006) drew large Filipino crowds back to the Church. As her community increased its visibility, longtime parishioners began to accept the new members.
One of the issues facing the Filipino community is a clash of cultures as traditional, Catholic parents raise first-generation American children. "We want our kids to practice the same values that we were raised with," Fajardo said.
Father Ernesto M. Tibay, the coordinator for the archdiocesan Filipino Apostolate, develops events and programs for the Filipino community. Father Tibay, who also serves as parochial vicar at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Bergenfield, tries to create activities for his community that enrich and celebrate the faith of the growing group.
"Out of 25,000 residents in Bergenfield, around 5,000 are Filipinos," Father Tibay estimated. "I try to form a structure and work with the community and facilitate ways they can become more active. Filipinos are very devout and have a lot of practices and rituals they want to continue."
Ordained in the Philippines, he served in his country's diocese for 10 years before coming to the United States in 1958. "There is a difference in culture here in America. In the Philippines, the culture is centered on the family; here, the culture, as a whole, is more individualistic. Children who are born here have a different outlook. They are more independent."
Jersey City, like Bergenfield, also has a large and growing number of Filipino faithful who are making their presence known. Every third Sunday, St. Joseph Parish in Jersey City hosts a Filipino Mass. Originated by the Our
Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Council Knights of Columbus, the Mass is celebrated in Tagalog (the homeland dialect spoken by many Filipinos) and English and draws a crowd from all over the archdiocese.
Father Francisco "Kiko" Magnaye is one of the priests at St. Joseph Parish who celebrate with the multigenerational community. "It takes a special person to see the Holy Spirit in your neighbor," Father Magnaye said in his homily. "When tolerance, caring and love happens, it is Christ slowly transforming us. In every person the Holy Spirit dwells. If we don't wage a battle against prejudice and intolerance, we will not see Christ in others. In the
past, people didn't see the Christ in others because of the color of their skin or their accent. We have to look beyond the surface and find the Christ in everyone."
A Filipino Knights of Columbus Council that saw a need for it in the community established the Filipino Mass. Francisco Ramirez was one of the founding members of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Council No. 7648 a quarter century ago. Ramirez, along with his wife Yolanda, moved from Jersey City to Bloomfield in 1998, but still attended the Filipino Mass every month.
"Filipinos are flocking to Jersey City and even Bloomfield has a growing number as well," Ramirez said. "During the celebration of Simbang Gabi last holiday season, I saw people from different sections of the archdiocese at all of the masses."
Now a parishioner at St. Thomas the Apostle in Bloomfield, Ramirez recalls that when he first came to New Jersey, there was not a large Filipino population attending Mass at St. Joseph's. "In 1980, I became the first Eucharistic minister over there. Now, about 75 percent of the congregation is Filipino."
Ramirez came to the United States in 1970 and his wife Yolanda followed in 1972. The religious traditions of their homeland continued after their move to Jersey City.
"Filipinos are known for their deep devotion to Mary," Ramirez said. “Novenas for Our Lady of Perpetual Help and anything connected to the Infant Jesus (Santo Nino) are celebrated with masses and special feasts. The first Filipino saint, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, is celebrated in September with a novena and it is a big feast day. We also focus on saying rosary and there are groups that say the rosary from house to house. A group of people will gather their money together and buy a statue of the Blessed Mother and rotate it in different houses every week and gather for prayer." Ramirez said.
Ramirez believes all the work he has done for the Filipino community could be considered a mission. "A priest once said that so many Filipinos migrate to America. He asked us: 'Why do you think you are here?' The priest challenged us and said it was our mission to help our community. Jesus did not bring us (to America) for nothing. By perpetuating the Filipino Mass, we show the community that we are devoted. We are a community that wants to show how grateful we are for God's presence."
Coming from a poorer and politically turbulent country, Ramirez is especially grateful for his good fortune. "(Filipinos who live in America) are better off than we were at home. We appreciate that within our community and praise Him for what He has given to us. The Philippines have natural calamities, from typhoons to mud¬slides and earthquakes. Politically there is always fighting and there is a threat of rebellion to overthrow the government. The economic situations keep getting worse. Despite all of these problems, we are a people who are still standing proud and are faithful to our religion. The more problems we have, the more faith we have."
Two of the Ramirez's children were born in the Philippines and two were born in America. The generational and cultural gap is something the parents continually have to deal with, even now that they have become grandparents. "You want your children to go to Mass and you want them to know about tradition and their roots. Once in a while our kids will come with us to the Filipino Mass. But now they have their own families and it is getting harder for them," Yolanda Ramirez said. "I tell my children to at least go to Mass every Sunday."
While taking care of her grandchildren, Yolanda seizes the opportunity to instill religious values and Filipino tradition. "I tell my grand¬son every night before he goes to bed that he has to say his prayers. He goes to public school, he attends CCD and knows how to recite the Our Father and Hail Mary. There are little ways we teach the children, from the statues and crosses on the wall in our house to prayers. You have to mold kids when they are young."
Explaining religious figures and retelling stories of their life in the Philippines is one way the Ramirez family ensures that their children and grandchildren never forget their heritage. "In the back of the children's minds, they remember these little things," Francisco Ramirez said. "That is the inheritance we would like to leave them."