FRESH MEADOWS — Growing up in the southern region of the Philippine islands, Chris Gutierrez said he wasn’t really invested in big church celebrations that had to do with his Catholic identity. It wasn’t until his formative years that he could confidently share his change of heart.
“When I was growing up in the Philippines I really didn’t care much about it, but now I’ve become very devoted to Santo Niño,” said Gutierrez, a parishioner at Holy Family parish in Queens.
Santo Niño, or what Filipinos refer to as the Holy Child Jesus, is a key figure in traditional Catholic Filipino households throughout the world. In some provinces of the Philippines, it is the biggest feast day of the year and people come from all over the world to celebrate their devotion to young Jesus with special Masses, cultural dances, and processions where participants carry a statue of Santo Niño.
The Feast of Santo Niño also calls for a traditional Filipino trifecta of faith, food, and family. For members of the diocesan Filipino ministry in Fresh Meadows, the June 26 celebration didn’t fall short of meeting those expectations. After a year on hiatus due to the pandemic, the event’s return drew a large turnout.
“This has probably been our largest turnout for our Santo Niño celebration,” said Father Sean Suckiel, pastor of Holy Family. “We’ve been doing this for the last seven years and obviously last year with the pandemic we could not physically be together, but we never missed out.”
Last year, the church held a virtual Mass. This year, the event started with the crowds taking to the streets of Fresh Meadows for a procession. Along Utopia Parkway, with their colorful red and gold Santo Niño statues and rosaries in hand, a prayerful parade took place.
“The crowd was bigger, the excitement was palpable and people were just missing it,” Father Suckiel said. “People were just missing being together.”
After the procession, the crowds headed into the church parking lot to be welcomed by the smells of staple dishes from the island like lumpia, or fried pork egg rolls; and pancit, or seafood rice noodles.
The afternoon’s entertainment came into a full array when groups of women wearing dresses in sparkly hues of blue stepped into the parking lot carrying the Santo Niño statue. The crowd watched as they swayed back and forth, colorfully showcasing through dancing how culture and faith intersect.
“It shows to the community who truly Filipinos are and it shows the different way we devote ourselves to Baby Child Jesus,” Gutierrez added. “It’s very inspirational especially since we need the community. We have all these celebrations that have sometimes been taken for granted. I’m happy that it’s back.”
The feast wouldn’t have been complete without a Mass. After the afternoon’s scheduled events, the faithful gathered in the church to give thanks. As the pews filled once again, rows of parishioners packed the church wearing traditional Filipiniana dresses in radiant reds, blues, and golds.
“We blessed all the kids and we thanked them for their presence in our lives because through them we see God,” Father Suckiel said. “That’s the role of Santo Niño, the Holy Child, is that every child, every human being, is a messenger, a blessing to us.”