On Sunday, Oct. 5, an African family received a memorable welcome into the Catholic faith and a new life in the United States at St. Joseph Parish in downtown Waukesha.
Jean Paul and Jean Pierre Kabemba, 13-year-old twins, were baptized and received their first Communion, along with their sister Anastasia “Bambi” Kabemba, 11; younger brother Arnold, 7, was also baptized.
The children moved to Waukesha in February with their mother Suzanne from Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Suzanne Kabemba said she is a devout Catholic who attended daily Mass in her home country. Her children attended Catholic school in Kinshasa and had catechetical preparation for their baptism and first Communions, but the family’s emigration to the United States interrupted their plans.
After settling in Waukesha, Suzanne quickly found a new spiritual home at St. Joseph – but getting to Sunday Mass wasn’t always easy. St. Joseph’s only English Mass on Sunday is at 9 a.m., the same time the Waukesha bus routes start – far from the Kabemba residence.
The Kabembas speak fluent French but are still learning English, and the later Masses at St. Joseph are celebrated in Spanish – a language with which they are even less familiar.
Fr. Bill Key, St. Joseph pastor, became acquainted with the family, and with the help of a French-fluent seminarian from Haiti, learned of their story.
When Fr. Key learned of their difficulties getting to Mass, he stepped in and either drives them to Mass himself or arranges rides from other parishioners.
He said he admires the Kabembas’ devotion to the faith, which Suzanne describes as being “very, very important” to them.
“When she first came to the United States, (Suzanne) was living with a friend, and that lady would give her a ride – but she wanted her to go to the Methodist church. But she said, ‘No, no – I go to the Catholic church. My children go there,’” said Fr. Key. “When you come and you don’t know that language, you’re there because you want to be persistently there, and eventually people will be able to greet you and say hello, but that takes time.”
Suzanne provided Fr. Key with documentation of the children’s completion of Christian formation classes, and Fr.Key arranged for a French-speaking priest from Sacred Heart Seminary in Franklin to baptize the children and administer first Communion to Jean Pierre, Jean Paul and Anastasia on Oct. 5. Other St. Joseph parishioners were chosen to be the godparents.
“It was very good. I really appreciate it,” said Anastasia of the baptism ceremony, conducted in French. She said that she and her brothers, who attend Butler Middle School in Waukesha, are adjusting well to their new life in the United States and making friends at school – but last year’s winter was especially hard for the African immigrants to bear.
“We like it, but it is very different. I like (living here), but I don’t like when it gets very cold,” she said.
Suzanne said she emigrated to the United States “to learn more. My first goal is (to have) my children start (school) here.” Her husband remains in Africa, and hopes to join the family as soon as he can obtain a visa, a process which can be quite lengthy.
“It’s very difficult to have visa in my country. To come here, I won the lottery,” said Suzanne, who obtained her visa through the U.S. State Department’s Diversity Visa System, also known as the “green-card lottery system,” in which qualified candidates from certain countries are randomly selected for visas.
She had a 20-year teaching career in Kinshasa, and now works part-time cleaning houses, while also attending school at Waukesha County Technical College to improve her English skills.
But even if Suzanne and her children don’t fully grasp the English language yet, the ritual and sacrament of the Catholic Mass is understandable wherever they go.
“(Life in the United States) is very, very different,” said Jean Pierre. “But church isn’t different.”
“It is the same, but sometimes at home in the Congo, when we went to French Mass, sometimes we prayed in Latin,” said Anastasia.
Catholicism is the dominant Christian religion in the Congo, with more than half the population identifying themselves as Catholics. When attending Mass in Kinshasa, Suzanne said the language was usually French or Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in the northwestern part of the county. The liturgy often incorporated traditional music and dance, she said.
“My problem is not to understand. I go to church to pray. The Father is speaking – I know the Mass in French – and if he say anything, I know he say (good things),” she said. “Every morning, in my country, I went to church. Every day. Here it is English; in my country, it is French – but it is the same.”