BY NINA NAPOLITANO — Home. If you’re from Nigeria, it may seem impossibly far away. But many first-generation immigrants have found a second home in the heart of historic Hyattsville.
The Nigerian Catholic Community is preparing to celebrate its first Easter in its permanent home: St. Jerome’s Catholic Church, where it has been since May. For nearly 18 years, the NCC has served native Nigerians in the metro area from a series of rental locations that changed every couple of years.
Last spring, a change in the St. Jerome weekend Mass schedule cleared the way for a NCC service every Sunday at 12:30 p.m. In July, Fr. Charles Edeh arrived from Enugu, Nigeria, to serve as chaplain to the group.
“We’re very happy to have the Nigerian Catholic Community worshipping with us,” said Fr. James Stack, pastor of St. Jerome. The NCC is happy too, because being in and out of rental churches and rooms would be tough on any congregation.
On a recent Sunday, Edeh took up a special collection for much-needed building repairs. “We’re going to be using [the building],” he said, “So please be generous.”
But it’s the building of the community that he really cares about. “We want to create a niche of Nigerian Catholics in the Washington area so that our children who are born here have something of their culture,” Edeh said, “Something that they lost from their homes.”
To that end, the group has elaborate celebrations for Nigerian Independence Day (October 1) as well as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. But on any given Sunday, the sounds, sights and atmosphere evoke memories of the parishioners’ homeland.
A large choir sings in a local dialect as musicians play native instruments. A special prayer asking for the alleviation of distress, bribery, and corruption in Nigeria is a regular part of the service. Many women wear traditional outfits: buba and wrapper (blouse and skirt) or kaba (one-piece dress) all fashioned from brilliant fabrics. The geles (head wraps) that many women wear look like nature’s most festive blossoms in various stages of blooming. Some men wear frocks in fabrics just as exuberant as the women’s. It’s a family that prides itself on dress and appearance as well as actions.
“We’re known for our generosity,” said longtime community member Victoria Agvar. “People are dressed like you. They speak like you. It’s like home.”
One woman from Riverdale Park, who identified herself only as Beatrice, began attending the service with her family nine months ago after years of going to another Mass at the parish.
“I come here because my mom likes it. This makes me feel like we’re back home,” said Beatrice, whose son is a student at St. Jerome Academy.
Afterwards, everyone stays to chat with friends and family, or even to learn; Edeh doesn’t stop teaching after the closing prayer. Recently, he stayed afterwards to instruct a large crowd of lectors how to pronounce difficult English words.
The weekly Mass draws people from as far away as Baltimore and Howard County, and Edeh hopes that many more will follow. “Now that we have a permanent site, we want permanent members, he said. “Our future is bright.”
The NCC is the only Nigerian faith community recognized by the Archdiocese of Washington, but it is not unique. Catholics from Italy, Korea and Portugal, to name a few, all have similar congregations.