A St. Louis African Catholic group helps immigrants celebrate their faith in Swahili and French
It is the first Sunday of the Advent season, and inside St. Norbert Catholic Church in Florissant are about 50 African families spaced out across the church pews tapping their feet to the African drum and singing gospels in Swahili along with the choir.
Just about everyone attending mass is part of the St. Louis International African Catholic Community organization. African immigrants who speak Swahili gather at St. Norbert every first Sunday of the month to celebrate their culture with others and practice their faith. Many of the members also attend the parish’s afternoon French masses every third Sunday.
The language services have helped tremendously shape the experience for many African immigrants here in St. Louis in a positive way, said Diana Donovan, St. Louis International African Catholic Community president.
“When I moved here, in 2013, I was the only Black person in my parish, for many years,” Donovan said. “But now, just having this community has helped me because I know, even if I'm at my parish for several weeks, I will definitely be here with the rest of the people who share the same values, the same cultures, the same languages as me.”
The African catholic ministry started in 2010 at Holy Trinity parish in St. Ann. The church closed in June 2020 because of a declining number of parishioners and an increase in church debt. With this closure, the Swahili and French masses were paused. Members revived the services during the coronavirus pandemic by hosting them via Zoom, but it was short-lived because the group could not keep a priest who spoke the languages.
“Having a priest who speaks your language, who has grown up in your culture, understands you so deeply, is crucial to the well being of the community,” Donovan said. “You can always share with him some things that probably you might not share with your priest at your parish.”
After nearly a two-year hiatus, St. Norbert began hosting the Swahili and French masses in September 2022. Members of the African catholic ministry say attending mass in their native language has helped them mentally process resettlement and it also helped them gain community in a new country, which provides a sense of belonging.
The language masses bring in Africans from different parishes across the area that come from about 15 countries including Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Sudan, and Rwanda.
According to 2022 U.S. Census data, there are 12,446 Africans in the St. Louis region, up from 10,309 in 2017. Many of the African immigrants in the area come from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya, which is one of the fastest growing African immigrant communities in the region.
Father Anthony Kitema started conducting the Swahili masses in October 2022. Kitema, who is from Kenya, is a graduate student at St. Louis University studying leadership and organizational development. This year marks his 15th year of priesthood. The Archdiocese of St. Louis asked Kitema, who speaks three languages — Kamba, Swahili and English — to serve as priest over the Swahili mass while continuing his studies.
The masses are a celebration of the African journey, traditions and Christianity, said Kitema.
“We want them to nourish these kinds of faith that they come with,” he said. “They are now immigrants here in America, but we do not want them to forget where they came from — their roots, their Christian faith.”
Kitema said many African immigrants gratefully come to him to discuss any issues or any challenges they may have in St. Louis. He especially enjoys the African traditions at mass, because it reminds him of home.
“We want to have that period to enjoy ourselves, to celebrate with Christ, to dance and sing,” he said. “In the procession, when the mass is beginning, kids [are] dancing … that is [how mass is] back in Kenya.”
The services are one-of-a-kind in the area. They include worshiping in Swahili and French, the entire choir ushering in the priest and the liturgy while singing and dancing and gathering for a family-style traditional African meal after mass.
Donovan said many members have expressed to her that they were dealing with loneliness or depression from moving to a new place and having to learn another language and new customs, so attending mass in Swahili or French has been a lifesaver. The group encourages people to bring a new African family to the services to help them find support and ease some refugees' fears of resettlement or immigrants' fears of a new land.
“One of our members lost a family member at home (Africa), so we went to their home to visit and everybody brought food and we prayed together just to bring that person out of that sadness of missing the lost relative,” Donovan said. “So, we try to fill up those gaps by just trying to do the same thing here, but on a smaller scale.”
Silvie Kagarama attends both masses. She grew up speaking Swahili and French in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. When she moved to St. Louis two and a half years ago, she thought it would be hard to find a place to worship, since she did not speak English.
Through a French translator she said mass has helped her make new African friends, which she thought would take her several years to do.
Similarly, Caroline Mogunde thought it would take some time to build her community in St. Louis. She quickly joined the Swahili choir, after hearing about the African catholic ministry in 2018.
The Kenyan native mostly enjoys that she can meditate and worship in Swahili with other Africans at least once a month. She said Africans come from various tribes and have different customs, but while at St. Norbert, they are all one.
“We don't have partiality, like tribalism, we work together as a brother and a sister. We have no differences,” she said. “When my fellow Africans come together, we have one language we speak together and come together in agreement.”
Mogunde said she is usually stressed before coming to mass, but is relieved when she starts singing and moving her body to the drums and tambourines.
“Swahili is our national language and English, so that's why I enjoy [mass], I can be able to understand better,” Mogunde said. “When I listen to Swahili mass, I feel that I'm at home.”
Corrections: A previous version of this story misidentified a member of the church's congregation. The article also has been modified to clarify a parishioner's quote.