Pope Visit Brings Excitement to Revived Philadelphia Church

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By Chris Fuchs

In the early 1990s, when Filipino-American Catholics began arriving in droves at St. Augustine’s in Philadelphia, they wanted to dance at mass, particularly on special occasions. It was part of their tradition as Catholics growing up in the Philippines, and Reynaldo Borres, a performer trained in Filipino folk dance, had hoped to preserve it.

Now, the dance troupe Borres co-founded more than two decades ago, the Mutya Philippine Dance Company, is preparing for its biggest performance yet: dancing in front of Pope Francis when he celebrates the Festival of Families in Philadelphia this Saturday.

“My first experience was performing in front of the president [of the Philippines]," said Borres, who was a member of the famed Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group. “It was ordinary for me. But not this one. I might get star struck.”

Borres, who came to the United States in 1984, is one of nearly 20 Filipino-American Catholics who 24 years ago helped breathe new life into St. Augustine’s, a parish founded in 1796 by the Augustinian Order.

"Mass is supposed to be a celebration of the congregation, regardless of ethnicity."

Sitting at the foot of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the once well-attended St. Augustine’s had seen its parishioner roll dry up by the 1990s, as Irish- and German-American congregants moved out of the Old City district. Christmas mass in 1991 was a tipping point for the fourth oldest Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia: there were just nine people in attendance, and that included the pastor, the Rev. Walter J. Quinn.

“Everyone was told they would be closing St. Augustine’s,” recalled Fernando Dacanay, one of the original Filipino-American parishioners.

But that day never came. Instead, St. Augustine’s transformed itself into a vibrant and thriving parish, thanks in large part to its Filipino-American congregation. And that is something Filipino-American parishioners say they hope the pope notices on his trip to Philadelphia.

“Because of us being here at St. Augustine’s in 1992, the diocese found out that these Filipinos are so faithful that they have to be recognized,” Dacanay said.

The bond between Filipino Catholics and the Augustinians is indeed a strong one, dating back to 1535 when Augustinian missionaries traveled to the Philippines and introduced Filipinos to the devotion of Santo Nino, the Holy Child Jesus. Some 14 years earlier, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had already brought the image of Santo Nino to the archipelago. But it was engulfed in a blaze set by Spaniards when natives of Cebu City turned against the colonists.

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Miraculously, the image of Santo Nino survived, unearthed from the rubble in 1565.

As a result, Santo Nino has earned a special place in the hearts of Filipino Catholics. So when Quinn agreed in 1992 to enthrone at St. Augustine’s a statue of the Santo Nino, his Filipino-American Catholic parishioners were ecstatic.

Father Wilson Capellan (Father Willy) celebrates mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday, September 20, 2015.Laurence Kesterson / NBC News

But there was one condition, recalled Ferdinand Luyun, another original Filipino-American congregant. Quinn wanted to see at least 100 Filipino Americans at the next mass.

“After that, there were not only a hundred,” Luyun said. “The church was filled with them.”

And so began St. Augustine’s improbable revival. The church that was once burned to the ground in 1844 during anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Nativist riots was attracting new Filipino-American Catholics from all over the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.

“Because of us, being here at St. Augustine’s in 1992, the diocese found out that these Filipinos are so faithful that they have to be recognized.”

Shortly after, St. Augustine’s became the national shrine in North America for Santo Nino. An annual feast called Sinulog, held every January in the Philippines to honor the Holy Child Jesus, today attracts more than 1,000 Filipino-American Catholics who celebrate on the streets outside St. Augustine’s in August, when the weather is warmer.

"This is a vibrant community,” said the Rev. Wilson A. Capellan, an Augustinian priest who was born in the Philippines and says mass on weekends. “The pastoral works seem to be very in line with what we like to emphasize.”

A parishioner kneels to pray during mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church in the Old City section of Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday, September 20, 2015.Laurence Kesterson / NBC News

One of St. Augustine’s proudest achievements of late has been its expansion of the church community to welcome parishioners of other ethnicities. The 11 o’clock mass, once attended mostly by Filipino Americans, is now a popular choice among whites, blacks, and Latinos, as well as young and old. And while some hymns, like the Lord’s Prayer, are still sung in the Filipino language of Tagalog, saying the mass in English, a language widely spoken in the Philippines, has helped bridge gaps between cultures.

“Mass is supposed to be a celebration of the congregation, regardless of ethnicity,” Capellan said.

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Pope Francis’ trip to the U.S., and his visit to Philadelphia, has stirred excitement among many Catholics, and St. Augustine’s Filipino-American community is no exception. In the U.S., 65 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, the largest group among any denomination of Christianity, according to the Pew Research Center. Their love of the pope, Filipino-American Catholics say, derives from his willingness to embrace everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

“He’s an ordinary person, with his humility,” Luyun said. “He’s so humble.”

Charisse Padolina dances during practice with the Mutya Philippine Dance Company at St. Augustine Catholic Church on Sunday, September 20, 2015. The church is home to a large Filipino-American congregation who are preparing for Pope Francis' visit to the city.Laurence Kesterson / NBC News

For Borres, the artistic director whose dance troupe will perform on Saturday, just being invited to a papal event is itself a humbling experience.

“I’m a little tense now,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out what to present.”

Borres and his group’s 15 members—men and women ranging in age from 11 to some in their 40s—have been practicing every Sunday afternoon at St. Augustine’s, which lets them use church space. One of the three dances the group plans to perform is called the Tinikling, which originated during Spanish colonial rule. It involves two people clapping, tapping, and sliding bamboo poles on the floor while dancers step over and in between them.

Borres admits he doesn’t dance as much as he once did, but this time he plans to be manning the bamboo.

“I want to be in front of the stage so the pope can see me,” said Borres, laughing. “I’m hoping the pope will give me a blessing.”