SYDNEY—Pancit canton, pork barbecue, chopsuey, inihaw na tilapia, sinigang, and the star of any Filipino table, Cebu lechon belly—what a lunch treat for a group of Pinoy Sydneysiders, one of whom felt a hankering for Pinoy food. I thought: How apt that we were feasting today, June 12, Philippine Independence Day. One among our group earlier posted: “Happy 124th, Pinas” marked by a heart.
Filipino communities all over Australia constantly gather for various events.
In April in Northern Sydney’s Chatswood district, people passing a church courtyard stopped to look at the top of the steps, curious about the catchy music that a crowd was singing, dancing, and clapping to. Parishioners of the Our Lady of Dolours Church had gathered in the forecourt after Mass for a program to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Filipino Chaplaincy Chatswood Parish (FCCP).
Ladies in bright-colored baro’t saya (traditional blouse and skirt) were performing folk dances like the Subli and the Cariñosa to recorded rondalla music. In another number, the Filipino-Australian choristers who had earlier sung Mass hymns were now harmonizing OPM (Original Pilipino Music) hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The crowd sang along and managed some disco dancing in the dazzling early-afternoon sun.
The parish priest, Fr. David Ranson, was pleased, and probably more so because the activity was drawing attention. I am told that he encourages the use of the church forecourt for parish events, whether cultural (like Lunar New Year festivities) or religious (like the Holy Thursday vigil).
Father David, who is also vicar general of the Diocese of Broken Bay, to which Chatswood belongs, seems keen for the public to see the church as a welcoming and animated place where people gather not solely to attend Sunday Mass but also to commune with one another. Hopefully, a casual onlooker might be touched spiritually.
In his message on the occasion, he acknowledged the Filipino community as a blessing to the parish: “We are enriched in so many ways by its faith and generosity.” He said the parish was thankful for “the vitality of their association…and the presence of this rich and vibrant culture in our midst.”
To his Filipino parishioners, the program was an opportunity to display that culture—an essential expression of identity in a foreign country. As a friend who once lived overseas put it, distance sets off stirrings of longing and renewed appreciation for anything associated with the motherland.
No one perhaps was prouder that day than Deacon Roberto Corpuz, the pastoral coordinator of the Filipino Chaplaincy of the entire diocese. Has often said that the church is all about welcoming everyone. In June 2020 when the church reopened after three months of lockdown, he articulated everyone’s jubilation in a TV interview: “Having been cooped up in the home…and now finally being able to meet face-to-face and smile and say, ‘it’s good to see you,’ it’s wonderful!”
The Filipino chaplaincy was born of the various communities Filipinos formed within their parishes since the early ‘80s. It provides support to Filipinos assimilating into Australian life while maintaining Filipino values and culture.
A church is the most logical place for Filipinos to cultivate this connectedness to the motherland. It is one of the first things they look for when they go overseas. In a strange new place, it is a safe haven, where they can get their bearings and calm conflicting emotions.
In time, the place of worship becomes a home away from home, an anchor. Perhaps being there stirs youthful memories of Sunday trips to church with family and evokes a sense of security.
Although in adulthood the weekly obligation might have declined into a perfunctory exercise, now in their new surroundings it is rekindled as a form of fellowship. No wonder then that in a foreign city, Filipinos are most likely to find kababayan at Sunday Mass.
Religious traditions are an important aspect of Philippine culture, the practice of which Filipinos generally continues wherever they are. It becomes a defining element of their identity. An attendant on international flights once observed that you could tell the Pinoys on board: At takeoff and landing they make the sign of the cross.
Chatswood, the largest parish in the diocese, is one of six that host a Filipino chaplaincy. Each one holds a Filipino Mass (one in Tagalog) on a particular Sunday every month, followed by fellowship that includes a salu-salo (sharing) of food that Pinoy parishioners grew up with. (It also holds Spanish and Indonesian culture Masses.)
‘Flores de Mayo,’ etc.
Filipinos in the diocese have also been holding the Maytime Flores de Mayo for more than 15 years. Other Philippine religious festivals that have become annual events across Australia where there are Filipinos are the Visita Iglesia and Sinulog—the latter for over 30 years in Western Sydney’s Blacktown, a Filipino enclave.
For five years now Chatswood has been holding Simbang Gabi, attended even by non-Filipinos. Just like back home, the traditional after-Mass repast of bibingka, puto bumbong, and suman awaits churchgoers, except during the first year of the pandemic.
Churchgoers have their parol (Christmas lanterns) blessed at the nine-day Mass. Last December, the parish held a fundraiser, making lanterns for sale and auctioning off one grand parol for the benefit of Typhoon “Odette” victims.
Chatswood’s first Simbang Gabi in 2017 merited coverage by the SBS multicultural and multilingual public service radio-TV network.
“Being in Australia hasn’t stopped Filipinos taking part in…their country’s traditions,” said broadcaster Matt Connellan.
“Tradition reinforces our faith and freedom, because we can practice it here,” said Ditas Naguit, then FCCP coordinator, in an interview. Her team has since handed over the reins to the next generation.
Of the 25.7 million Australians, 52 percent are Christians, nearly half of whom are Catholic. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Filipinos make up the fifth largest ethnic community and are among the top contributors to the Catholic population, along with the Italians and the Irish.
Imagine these statistics multiplied on a grand scale in some 190 countries by overseas Filipino workers (OFW).
“Wherever they go to work, they sow the faith,” said Pope Francis at the Mass he presided over at St. Peter’s Basilica for the 500th anniversary of the Evangelization of the Philippines on March 14, 2021. He cited women OFWs as “smugglers” of the faith.
Two days later in the first of similar commemorative Masses in Australia, Filipino Catholics were lauded for sharing their gift of faith by the then papal nuncio to Australia, Filipino Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana. They preach the Gospel not by words but by actions, “often in unheralded and unassuming activities and engagements in the dioceses of Australia,” he said in his homily at the concelebrated Mass at Our Lady of Dolours Church.
The main celebrant was the Most Rev. Anthony Randazzo, Bishop of the Diocese of Broken Bay, with Father David, Filipino assistant priest Joey Frez, Deacon Corpuz and 16 other clerics and deacons from across the diocese assisting.
Before giving the final blessing, Bishop Randazzo thanked Filipino Catholics for propagating the faith: “To me, you are the parol, the symbol of the star that guided the Magi to Jesus.”
Seventeen years ago, hours after my daughter Giselle arrived in this city to work in an engineering company, she sent this text message: “Finally found a church, nakaiyak na rin ako (I had a good cry). I feel better.”
As a newcomer, she piqued her work mates’ curiosity for her observance of the Sunday obligation. She lived in another suburb then and heard Mass at the Chapel of Australian St. Mary MacKillop. She soon saw their admiration and respect, especially when she served as World Youth Day volunteer in 2008.
Writing about her experience then in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, she noted that as in any Catholic event, there were Filipinos at every turn—bearing the World Youth Day Cross in a procession in the CBD, cohosting the opening ceremony, singing in a choir at the Mass for pilgrims. How proud she was to be Pinoy!
In her eighth year here, she moved to another suburb, where she joined a Filipino-Australian choir. The choir became family and the church where they sing her second home, Our Lady of Dolours in Chatswood.
Angelina G. Goloy worked in the Philippine Daily Inquirer and in the Daily Globe and Times Journal (both since defunct). In 2020 the pandemic caught her on a visit to her daughter in Sydney, where she has been temporarily staying. Portions of this report first saw print in the weekly OpinYon. —ED.