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African Catholics in NYC Find Community at French Mass

USNews | The origins of the French language can be traced back to the French missionaries who founded the Church of Notre Dame in New York in 1910.

The history of the New York City church, which began as a chapel in 1910 and was formed by French missionaries from the Fathers of Mercy, is anchored in the French language. The pews of Notre Dame were previously packed with immigrants from France who settled on the Upper West Side in the early twentieth century. Today, African Catholics attend the French service, which is one of three languages in which its priests perform Mass on Sundays.

The parishioners — a broad African diaspora living in the city and surrounding states, many of whom are from former French and Belgian colonies in West and Central Africa, including Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo, and Congo — are brought together by the language.

"The African community here comes from different nations with different languages, so French is particularly crucial to bring them all together as their common language," said assistant pastor Rev. Michael Holleran, who studied French as a Carthusian monk in France.

Although Catholic ceremonies are the same regardless of language, many people find it holy to be able to worship in French.

"When I am among the French community, I am better able to grasp the Scriptures, the Gospel, and I feel more spiritually fulfilled," said Monique Degny-Oulai, a longstanding parishioner originally from Ivory Coast.

Even though he is fluent in English and Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's common language, Uwamungu Ganza prefers to attend his new parish's French Mass because he enjoys the choir.

"They sing music that I recognize, so I feel more connected," he explained.

Holleran feels that the Chorale Sainte Marie Reine, a multicultural choir, is the strength of the French Mass. Sylvestre Kouadio, the band's leader and self-taught musician, incorporates African musical traditions such as highlife and coupé-décalé into new songs and hymns.

"The music and lyrics are incredibly dynamic, vivacious, and devotional," stated Holleran. "It sets the tone for the entire Mass." "Without them, the Mass will be radically different."

The choir, which was created in 1998 at the now-defunct St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in New York's Chelsea area, moved to Notre Dame with the parish's members in 2013. The influx from St. Vincent de Paul inspired church leaders to resurrect Notre Dame's long-suspended French service, earning it the title of Archdiocese of New York's official French Mass.

"We call this area a second home away from home," Kouadio, an Ivory Coast native, said. "You want to be able to talk to God, comprehend him, and be at ease in your connection with him."

It provides not only fellowship and comfort, but also a sense of belonging, according to Solange Kouakou, an Ivory Coast native who sings alto in the choir. She drives in from New Jersey on Sunday mornings.

"When we arrive, it feels like we've arrived in our own nation." "You feel welcomed when you see your community," she remarked.

Despite their preference for the French Mass on Sundays, some parishioners, particularly newcomers to the United States, attend English Mass on other days of the week for both practical and spiritual reasons.

"On Saturdays, I go to an English Mass to listen and practice my English," said Jean-Paul Gomis, a Senegalese immigrant who arrived in the United States two years ago.

Charlene Goncalves, who met her boyfriend at Notre Dame, is now fluent in English but finds that practicing her faith in French brings her the most spiritual fulfillment.

"I was reared and learned all the prayers in French, so going to a church that speaks my mother language just makes sense," said Goncalves, who is of Cape Verdean descent but grew up in Paris.

"In English, the only thing I can't do is pray."

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