St. John's in Bergenfield celebrates 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines

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BERGENFIELD — On the Sunday before the celebration of Jesus Christ's birth, parishioners at St. John the Evangelist Church gathered for song and prayers led by Father Oliver Nilo to honor the Virgin Mary and the Son of God.

As Nilo recounted the story of Elizabeth greeting a pregnant Mary, a large wooden cross stood to his left, a new arrival in the church that connected the congregation to a long history of Filipino forebears.

The cross, which has been touring the local Catholic diocese, is a replica of Magellan's Cross in Cebu City, the Philippines, which is believed to have been planted by Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan in April 1521, introducing the religion to the Pacific islands.

To mark the 500th year of Christianity in the Philippines, the so-called Pilgrim Cross has been traveling around churches in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, as Filipino Americans honor their history as the largest Christian nation in Asia.

The cross arrived in Bergenfield on Dec. 5, with Nilo officiating the Mass that enshrined it. About 45% of the more than 10,000 parishioners at the church are Filipino American.

"I'm very thankful Christianity was implanted in the Philippines," said Bergenfield resident Norma Norona, 78, a Filipino immigrant. "I don't know what would have happened without Christianity."

Filipino-run businesses line the diverse neighborhood along Washington Avenue in Bergenfield. The area has come to be known as Little Manila, in a town where more than 18% of the population is Filipino, according to U.S. Census figures. The Philippines, a collection of more than 7,600 islands off the South China Sea, have a major presence in Bergenfield and at St. John the Evangelist.

Built in 1905, the Roman Catholic church sits in an area that was once a white working-class neighborhood but is now multicultural and multilingual.

As demographics shifted in Bergenfield, the church has changed along with them, said Monsignor Richard Arnhols. There are Masses conducted in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. During Christmas season, a "Rooster Mass" is held at 5 a.m., similar to the Mass Filipino field workers would celebrate before setting off on a day's work, Arnhols explained.

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St. John's parishioners include 55 different nationalities, a change from the church's initial membership of mostly Irish and German immigrants.

"It's a pretty good representation of the community as a whole," Arnhols said.

The Filipino community came to the church about three decades ago and has grown throughout the years, he said.

"The Pilgrim Cross goes from church to church during the 12 months of this year," Arnhols said. "It is modeled on the original cross. What they've done to engage people this whole year is to travel."

Before St. John the Evangelist, the cross was at St. Joseph Church, which serves New Milford and Oradell. It will travel next to the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Union City. The yearlong celebration is due to end in March.

The Rev. Oliver D. Nilo leads Mass for Filipino congregants with the Pilgrim Cross, a replica of the cross planted in the Philippines 500 years ago, at St. John the Evangelist Church in Bergenfield on Sunday Dec. 19, 2021. This cross will travel from church to church across the diocese.
The Rev. Oliver D. Nilo leads Mass for Filipino congregants with the Pilgrim Cross, a replica of the cross planted in the Philippines 500 years ago, at St. John the Evangelist Church in Bergenfield on Sunday Dec. 19, 2021. This cross will travel from church to church across the diocese.

Seeing the Pilgrim Cross was emotional for Matthew Travilla, a Bergenfield resident who is a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist.

"It's raw compassion for me," said Travilla, 28. "We're going through some very challenging times right now."

Religion was not always a big part of Travilla's life. Growing up in Manhattan, he said, he didn't fully appreciate Catholicism.

"I didn't understand it," he said. "As I grew older, I started to read the teachings."

Through reading the Bible, Travilla gained a new perspective on the faith his family instilled in him. Now, he not only attends Mass weekly, he also volunteers at the church helping with collections.

"It connects the Filipino community," Travilla said. "We have that shared interest."

Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news out of North Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: mchao@northjersey.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Bergenfield NJ church marks 500 years of Christianity in Philippines

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