NEW YORK – When Landry Felix Uwamungu Ganza moved to New York from Rwanda last August, the freshman at Columbia University sought a sanctuary, a sacred place to perform his Sunday morning rituals as he l had done at home.
He ventured to the nearest Catholic parish, Notre-Dame Church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of his new town, and to his surprise found the familiar rhythms of Mass celebrated in French – a language that he grew up hearing from the pulpit.
“It was more about what I know from back home,” he said.
The French language is rooted in the history of the Church of New York – founded as a chapel in 1910 by French missionaries from the Fathers of Mercy. Immigrants from France who lived on the Upper West Side in the early 20th century once filled the pews of Notre Dame. Today, it is African Catholics who worship at the French service, one of the three languages in which its priests celebrate Mass on Sundays.
The language unites the parishioners – a diverse African diaspora living in the city and neighboring states, many of whom hail from former French and Belgian colonies in West and Central Africa, such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo and Congo.
“The African community here comes from different countries with their own languages, so French is really important to bring them all together as their common language,” said Fr. Michael Holleran, the assistant pastor, who learned French as a monk. Carthusians in France.
Although Catholic rituals are the same regardless of language, for many the ability to pray in French is spiritual.
“For me, it’s better to understand the scriptures, the gospel, and I feel more fulfilled spiritually when I’m in the French community,” said Monique Degny-Oulai, a longtime parishioner originally from Ivory Coast.
Uwamungu Ganza feels more comfortable attending Mass in French in his new parish even though he is fluent in English and Kinyarwanda, the common language in Rwanda, and is particularly fond of the choir.
“They sing songs that I know, so I feel like I connect more,” he said.
The strength of the French mass, according to Holleran, lies in its multinational choir, the Chorale Sainte Marie Reine. Sylvestre Kouadio, a self-taught musician who directs it, infuses the rhythms and styles of African musical traditions like highlife and coupé-décalé into new songs and existing anthems.
“The music and lyrics are very vibrant and lively and very devotional,” Holleran said. “It really sets the tone for the whole Mass. The Mass would be completely different without them.”
The choir, founded in 1998 at the now-closed St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, moved to Notre Dame in 2013 along with members of the closed parish. The influx of St. Vincent de Paul prompted church leaders to relaunch Notre Dame’s long-suspended French service, earning it the official French Mass designation of the Archdiocese of New York.
“This place, we call it a second home away from home,” said Kouadio, who is from Ivory Coast. “Your relationship with God is something you want to be able to talk to Him about, understand, and feel comfortable with.”
Not only does it provide community and comfort, but also a sense of belonging, said Solange Kouakou, who is also Ivorian and sings alto in the choir. She commutes on Sunday mornings from New Jersey.
“When we come, we feel like in our country. When you see your community, you feel welcome,” she said.
Despite the preference for French Mass on Sundays, some parishioners, especially newcomers to the United States, also attend English Mass on other days of the week for practical as well as spiritual reasons.
“On Saturdays, I go to a mass in English to listen and improve my English,” said Jean-Paul Gomis, who came to the United States from Senegal two years ago.
Charlene Goncalves, who met her boyfriend at Notre Dame, is now fluent in English but feels more spiritually fulfilled when she practices her faith in French.
“I was raised and learned all the prayers in French, so for me it makes sense to go to a church that speaks my mother tongue,” said Goncalves, who is of Cape Verdean descent but grew up in Paris.
“The only thing I can’t do in English is pray.”
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.