Welcoming diversity in the pews

Jemimah Mwaura, originally from Kenya, distributes communion to her mother, Jane Mwaura, left, and Frances Fejeran-Robinson during a Sunday Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way. In response to its increasing diversity, the parish has formed a multicultural commission. Photo: Janis Olson Jemimah Mwaura, originally from Kenya, distributes communion to her mother, Jane Mwaura, left, and Frances Fejeran-Robinson during a Sunday Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way. In response to its increasing diversity, the parish has formed a multicultural commission. Photo: Janis Olson

St. Vincent de Paul Parish aims to foster cultural awareness and appreciation year-round

When she emigrated from Kenya to Federal Way five years ago, Jemimah Mwaura was happily surprised about some of the differences she found at her new parish, St. Vincent de Paul.

“At St. Vincent’s, we sit together with the priest,” she said, and recalled her initial reaction: “Oh wow, this is so amazing.” Now Mwaura is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, something that wasn’t allowed back home. “In my culture, ladies don’t serve holy Communion,” she explained.

But Mwaura also misses some of the Catholic traditions from home.

In Kenya, Sunday Mass lasts two hours, with “a lot of dancing, singing, actually really a celebration,” Mwaura said. There are dances at the beginning of Mass, when the Bible is brought forward for the readings, and when the offertory gifts are presented. “Everything has to have a dance,” she said. “I miss that. But I find that during the multicultural Mass.”

St. Vincent de Paul Parish has an annual multicultural Mass that incorporates and celebrates languages and customs of its increasingly diverse parishioners. Once part of the parish’s fall festival, the Mass is now held on World Mission Sunday (October 21 this year).

“It makes people feel that their background is also valued in the parish,” Mwaura said. “The parish recognizes, ‘Yes we are in America, but we are from different cultures and those cultures are appreciated.’ In this church they know I am here,” she said. “They may not know me by name, [but] they appreciate who I am.”

Besides the annual event, the parish tries to incorporate music from different cultures at Masses on a regular basis, according to Father William McKee, St. Vincent’s pastor. The parish has Pacific Islands and Filipino choirs and is working on an African choir, he said. There are also annual events like the traditional Filipino Simbang Gabi Mass during Advent.

“I do think people appreciate the diversity that we have,” Father McKee said. “I think there’s openness in this community.”

On big feast days, other aspects like dance and processions are being included, traditions that share “the joy some of the cultures bring that is weaker in the Anglo community,” Father McKee said. “I’m hoping that joy will be kind of contagious.”

Such efforts are an extension of who we are as Catholics, according to Deacon Carl Chilo, the archdiocese’s director of multicultural communities.

“We’re called to be missionary disciples,” Deacon Chilo said. “We’re to be a welcoming disciple of Christ and to make sure that people feel as though they can come to the table to share and to worship together and to be part of this family that God has given us.”

St Vincent de Paul MulticulturalBei Bernal, left, Jemimah Mwaura and Florence Fanene are working to raise multicultural awareness and appreciation at their parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Federal Way. Bernal is from the Philippines, Mwaura from Kenya and Fanene from American Samoa. Photo: Janis Olson

Universal church is right here

During a recent Sunday Mass at St. Vincent’s, Father Tom Vandenberg, the pastor emeritus, encouraged parishioners to look at the faces around them. “They’re really from all over the world,” he said, a snapshot of the universality of the church, all coming together to celebrate and partake of the Eucharist.

St. Vincent’s parishioners hail from Asian, European and Spanish-speaking countries as well as the Philippines, Vietnam, African nations, Korea, American Samoa and Pacific countries like Fiji and the Marshall Islands. The parish lists more than 30 languages spoken as the “first languages” of its parishioners; last year, half the children baptized were non-Caucasian, according to parish administrator Tracey Rockwell.

Bei Bernal, a native of the Philippines who helped start the parish’s multicultural ministry, sees God in that diversity.

“I’ve always known not to put God in a box,” said Bernal, a campus minister and theology teacher at Seattle Preparatory School. “So if we are all made in the image and likeness of God, then it takes all of us to see God,” she said. “The diversity personifies God.”

St. Vincent’s increasing diversity echoes the changes seen in the broader community, according to Father McKee. The parish has stepped up its inclusion efforts by creating a multicultural commission, which began meeting in August. “All should feel welcomed and experience the parish as a sacrament of unity where the Catholic faith of all can be deepened and shared,” the commission’s charter states.

The group is working on ways to foster cultural awareness year-round by highlighting a culture or its particular saints’ feast days, Father McKee said. (See box for details about how the archdiocese is celebrating saints of different cultures on November 3.)

Besides promoting social and liturgical events, the St. Vincent’s commission is encouraged to sponsor forums where people of different cultures can share their backgrounds and identify areas of unity. Another role for the commission is encouraging diverse parishioners to become involved in parish leadership roles and ministries.

The group is also charged with helping new immigrants in the parish as they acclimate to the culture and church here, and to assist and encourage those who are struggling with immigration issues. “I’m getting called upon more and more to write letters for people applying for asylum or green cards,” Father McKee noted.

St Vincent de Paul Parish MulticulturalMembers of the Pacific Islands, Kenyan, Congolese and Filipino communities join their voices during the annual multicultural Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way. Photo: Courtesy St. Vincent de Paul Parish

Serving the mission, vision

Some members of the new commission have also been involved in the parish’s multicultural efforts since the early days.

“The idea was to bring diversity and to bring teamwork with other cultures,” said Florence Fanene, who grew up in American Samoa. “And that’s how we began having our music expand and be more known in the parish,” said Fanene, who is a cantor and whose husband, Leo, also from American Samoa, is director of the Pacific Islands choir.

Pam Ashe, whose family heritage is African-American and Honduran, enjoyed the “eclectic, vibrant atmosphere” of her childhood parish in southern California, a parish that was predominantly Latino and African-American. As an adult, “I never really found that [again] until I moved to St. Vincent’s,” she said.

It was St. Vincent’s youth group — which her son attended after a friend invited him — that drew the family to the parish, Ashe said. The group was welcoming and the youth were excited and had “joy about their connection to church,” she said. It wasn’t long before Ashe, a teacher at Federal Way High School, was teaching in the parish’s middle-school religious education program. “My involvement just kind of grew from there,” she said.

The cultural experiences offered by St. Vincent’s have also grown over the years. “I enjoy all of it really,” Ashe said. “The more that we grow, the more new blood that moves into the parish, I just kind of think it takes on a life of its own and it gets bigger.”

The multicultural Mass, she said, is better-attended “than any other Sunday of the year.” But she has noticed some parishioners seem uncomfortable when cultural traditions are incorporated at other Masses.

“It’s obvious who’s sort of feeling like a fish out of water when these things are happening,” she said. “I would hope those people would grow and learn and be more receptive to the fact that we are more diverse, and the church is universal, the church is diverse.”

Fanene is eager to get more cultures and countries represented on the new commission, “so we can … do work for the church and serve our vision and our mission.”

At the inaugural meeting in August, “we were introducing ourselves, our culture, our background, and I loved it,” Fanene said. “I’m excited and I’m ready.” 

Celebrating the diversity of the saints

The Archdiocese of Seattle is hosting its inaugural “Celebration of Our Saints” Mass at 11 a.m. November 3 at St. James Cathedral.

“In an effort to foster greater awareness of, and appreciation for, our many immigrant communities in Western Washington, I have asked for an annual Mass in early November to celebrate the particular saints revered by the various cultural communities who enrich the church in the Archdiocese of Seattle,” Archbishop J. Peter Sartain wrote in a July 2 letter to the archdiocese’s priests and pastoral coordinators.

“This annual Mass will be an opportunity for education, devotion, communion, and solidarity as we praise God together for the grace he has bestowed on each culture,” the archbishop added.

The Mass will include a procession with images of saints, parishioners wearing the traditional dress of their cultures and prayers said in a variety of languages, said Deacon Carl Chilo, the archdiocese’s director of multicultural communities. A reception will follow, and information about the various saints will be available, he said.

The Mass is inspired by Pope Francis’ “Share the Journey” initiative ending in September 2019, but Archbishop Sartain expressed hope that the annual celebration here will continue long after that.

The “Celebration of Our Saints” Mass is in addition to, not a replacement for, the solemnity of All Saints on November 1, which remains a holy day of obligation, the archbishop noted.

To learn how your parish can participate, contact Deacon Carl Chilo at 206-382-4828 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Some of the saints being highlighted and the communities they represent are:

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (French)
St. Martin de Porres (Peruvian)
St. Andrew Kim (Korean)
St. Kateri Tekakwitha (Native American)
St. Casimir Jagiellon (Lithuanian)
St. Andrew Dung-Lac An Tran (Vietnamese)
St. Lorenzo Ruiz (Filipino)
Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexican)
St. Pope John Paul II (Polish)
St. Francis of Assisi (Italian)
St. Josephine Bakhita (African)
120 Martyrs of China (Chinese)

Northwest Catholic - October 2018

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.