In the Philippines, it is customary for Simbang Gabi — a traditional novena of Masses offered in anticipation of Christmas — to be held early in the morning, well before sunrise. As the faithful stream out of the country’s churches every morning, delicacies like bibingka and hot chocolate are sold in the streets, whetting both the spiritual and the physical appetites for the coming delights of the Christmas season.
When Milwaukee’s Catholic Filipino community brought the tradition to the chilly shores of Lake Michigan, it wasn’t necessarily practical to have nine Masses before the break of day like it was back home. But the spirit of Simbang Gabi — faith, fellowship and family traditions — remains intact to this day.
“It’s really crucial,” said Jimmy Soriano, a parishioner of St. Alphonsus in Greendale who has been involved with organizing Simbang Gabi Masses since they were first begun in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee several decades ago. “It’s our way of celebrating the birth of our Lord.”
This year’s first Simbang Gabi Mass will be offered at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, at St. John Neumann Church in Waukesha. Masses will continue to be offered for nine consecutive evenings (and one Sunday afternoon), concluding at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23, at St. John the Evangelist in Greenfield.
At Simbang Gabi, Advent solemnity gives way, somewhat, to Christmas rejoicing, as the priest dons white vestments and the Gloria is sung. Following Mass, attendees are invited to a reception with traditional food.
“It’s open to anybody, not only to Filipinos,” said Soriano. “We would like to show to everybody how we prepare for Christmas.”
Simbang Gabi is coordinated by the Filipino Catholic Ministry, a part of the Archdiocesan Intercultural Ministries.
This year’s Simbang Gabi will be somewhat bittersweet for the community after the passing of Dr. Lourdes Ruta in June. Dr. Ruta, an active member of the Tri-Parish Catholic Churches of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, St. Bernadette Parish and St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish, was a critical player in the founding of Simbang Gabi here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“She was very much connected with and interested in the history and culture of the Philippines,” said Dr. Ruta’s husband Peter Ruta.
At the time, Dr. Ruta was developing a class about Asian and Pacific history at Milwaukee Area Technical College, where she was an instructor. Her dedication in getting the ministry off the ground was fueled by her instincts as an educator, said her husband.
“It was very important to her that people understood what Simbang Gabi means to the Filipino Catholic community,” he said. In the very beginning, Dr. Ruta worked closely with her brother, a musician, to select the appropriate music for the liturgies, and she traveled extensively to parishes around the archdiocese seeking churches that would host Masses. At each one, she took time to meet with the priests to ensure they had an understanding of the cultural significance of the novena.
Dr. Ruta was the chairman of the committee organizing Simbang Gabi from 2000-06, but remained involved with its coordination, even after she suffered a stroke in 2009.
“She was an educator in everything she was doing,” said Peter Ruta. “And now Simbang Gabi is alive and well.”
Full listing of 2022 Simbang Gabi masses:
— Dec. 15: 6:30 p.m., St. John Neumann Church, 2400 Les Paul Parkway, Waukesha.
— Dec. 16: 6:30 p.m., St. Matthias, 9300 W. Beloit Road, Milwaukee.
— Dec. 17: 6 p.m., St. Alphonsus, 6060 W. Loomis Road, Greendale.
— Dec. 18: 1 p.m., Mother of Perpetual Help, 1121 S. 116th St., West Allis.
— Dec. 19: 6:30 p.m., Blessed Savior, 8607 W. Villard Ave., Milwaukee.
— Dec. 20: 6:30 p.m., Our Lady Queen of Peace, 2733 W. Euclid Ave., Milwaukee.
— Dec. 21: 6:30 p.m., St. John Vianney, 1755 N. Calhoun Road, Brookfield.
— Dec. 22: 6:30 p.m., St. Mary’s Visitation, 1260 Church St., Elm Grove.
— Dec. 23: 6:30 p.m., St. John the Evangelist, 8500 W. Cold Spring Road, Greenfield.