St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church was filled with music on Saturday morning as a female choir sang in time with a drummer. Instead of English, their hymn was sung in Swahili, a Bantu language that is widely used in eastern and southeastern Africa
The choir members stood as they sang. After their song ended, the women sat. Then Father A.J. Deogratias Ssamba stood with Deacon James R. Turner by his side. The priest gave a liturgy readings, also in Sawhili.
Thus, began Kiswahili Misa, the Swahili Mass.
Saturday’s Sawhili Mass was the second one Deogratias Ssamba has given in Louisville. The first one took place at St. Martin in October.
Deogratias Ssamba said he plans to take a short visit to his homeland of Uganda after Christmas, but when he returns to Louisville in 2019 the Swahili Mass will become a regular part of St. Martin’s schedule.
“We are excited to set up a tradition with this Mass in this season of Happiness. To set up our parishioners to celebrate the birth of our Jesus Christ in a way that makes them feel at home, I think it is good,” Deogratias Ssamba told Insider before the service.
Africa has one of the world’s largest Catholic populations, estimated at more than 150 million people. Deogratias Ssamba said much of this is due to the history of colonialism and the church’s missionary work on the continent.
Swahili is spoken in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Charmein Weathers, African-American Catholic special projects/communications coordinator for the Archdiocese of Louisville, said refugees from many of those nations have been resettled in Louisville through the efforts of Catholic Charities and the Kentucky Refugees Ministries.
“This population keeps in close contact with one another, so we are sure word will spread. The archdiocese located the service at St. Martin because it is on Broadway, which is accessible by most TARC lines. Newcomers tend to depend on the bus for transportation,” she explained.
Weathers said it is impossible to say how many African Catholics there are in Louisville because not all parishes collect that information. But, she said, more than 50 people have attended each Swahili Mass the archdiocese has given, and she expects a greater number of parishioners to show up once word of mouth spreads and a regular schedule is posted.
Turner, who assisted Deogratias Ssamba in the Swahili Mass, is a retired priest who spent 25 years at St. Martin. He said Louisville has always had a strong African-American Catholic population, which is the reason St. Martin and St. Augustine Catholic Church are located in west Louisville.
Because of that legacy, Turner said, it is fitting that the parish opens its arms to the newcomers from Africa.
Weathers added that the archdiocese offers mass weekly in Vietnam and twice a month in French. The archdiocese also offers services in Korean and Spanish. She said the frequency of the Swahili Mass would be determined once Deogratias Ssamba returns from his vacation.
The archdiocese’s decision to offer Mass in so many languages, Weathers said, is an acknowledgement of the diversity of Catholicism in Louisville.
Deogratias Ssamba, who has been a priest for 18 years, is not a native Swahili speaker. He said he picked up the language during his first posting as a priest in Tanzania, but he admits to being rusty because he hasn’t used it for many years. Since becoming a priest, he has also worked in Kenya, Uganda and many other places around the world.
Deogratias Ssamba has been in Louisville for two years. Part of the reason he was relocated here, he said, was because the city had many Swahili speakers who did not speak English.
“At the moment, it is a bit hard to do the Mass in Swahili because I haven’t used it for a long time,” he said. “Now, I’m used to English. But it gets easier each time and I find that I enjoy it. Once I’m doing it regularly, I think it will become easier.”
Not everyone who attended the Swahili Mass on Saturday was African or even a Swahili speaker. Dave Jewell normally attends Mass at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Portland.
Deogratias Ssamba also works as an associate priest, and Jewell said he came out to support him. Despite having attended Mass regularly most of his life, Jewell admitted that he still had trouble following it in Swahili.
“That’s why I have my Mass book,” he said. “It’s nice to come here. Even though I don’t understand the words, I feel worshipping with these people broadens me as a person of faith.”