Members of two communities of African immigrants are welcomed at their new home, St. Bernard Parish in Omaha, at a May 7 Mass and at a carnival that followed. SUSAN SZALEWSKI

Journey of Faith

Two African communities unite with St. Bernard parishioners

It’s 11 a.m. Sunday at St. Bernard Church in Omaha, and people are moving.

That’s the aim, said choirmaster William Houndjoe, a native of Togo whose choir helps bring African-style worship to hundreds of African immigrants in the archdiocese. A pianist, two guitarists and a drummer back up a handful of vocalists in the choir.

The music, dancing and a distinct collection process have become a regular part of worship each week at at the Mass – for the African immigrants and all those who participate in the Mass.

The archdiocese’s Journey of Faith pastoral plan has brought together St. Bernard parishioners and two communities of African communities – Our Lady of Africa Chaplaincy and St. Michael the Archangel French Community.

Members of the St. Michael the Archangel French Community already had been worshiping at St. Bernard at a monthly Mass in French. That practice will continue.

The Our Lady of Africa Chaplaincy had been part of St. Gerald Parish in Ralston but has since moved to St. Bernard.

Together the combined African community totals about 120 families. They came from all parts of Africa, but most hail from west Africa, said Father Michael Gadache Ahmadu, a native of Nigeria who will soon be pastor of St. Bernard.

“It’s going to be an integration of cultures at St. Bernard,” Father Gadache said.

Though other Masses are available, longtime Bernard parishioners are trying out the African Mass, which is open to everyone.

The singing “is definitely different, but our parishioners are attending the Mass, and they think it’s beautiful,” said Rose Flores, business manager and development director at St. Bernard. “We get a lot of good feedback.” 

The changes began with a May 7 welcoming Mass, followed by a carnival on the St. Bernard School grounds. Father Gadache concelebrated the Mass with the parish’s current pastor, Father Dan Wittrock.

The Mass processions – at the entrance, offeratory, Communion and recession – served as a reminder that “we’re on a journey of faith, we’re on the move,” Father Wittrock said in his homily. On that journey, the Lord is in charge, the pastor said. “We place our hope and trust in God.”

Father Dan Wittrock and Father Michael Gadache Ahmadu concelebrate Mass at St. Bernard Parish in May 2023.

The Journey of Faith moves involve both priests and parishioners. As Father Gadache becomes pastor at St. Bernard, Father Wittrock becomes senior associate pastor of a rural family of parishes in Bloomfield, Brunswick, Cedar County, Crofton, Creighton, Niobrara and Verdigre.   

Since May 14, Masses celebrated in the African tradition have been offered every Sunday, with the African music and dancing and people walking to the altar for the collection instead of staying in the pews.

The African immigrants are adjusting as they are being welcomed into the broader parish life at St. Bernard, Father Gadache said.  

Most of the immigrants came to the United States for a better life, he said, but “they don’t want to be entirely disconnected from the style of worship that they have come from in Africa.”

The African-style Mass helps “the young people, the children being born here, to have an idea how worship is done in Africa. … We do not want them to lose touch with the culture, the way of life and the way of worship in Africa.” 

The progression of the African Mass is the same as that in the United States, but the African music will “get you moving a little bit,” Houndjoe said.

Houndjoe’s sister is one of the singers in the choir, and his brother is the drummer.

Their mother is typically among the congregation wherever the choir goes.

The group has played at a number of parishes, Houndjoe said, so they have gotten used to new setups, including St. Bernard. There’s an echo in the church, “so that’s something we are getting used to.”

“We find ways of adapting,” he said. “It shouldn’t take too long, I’m sure.”

So far, the blend of cultures at St. Bernard has worked, Flores said.  “I think we’ve communicated the changes to our parishioners and welcomed the community (of African natives).”

“It’s good,” she said, “and we’re happy to have them here. We’re hoping that they can join the school, because we have plenty of room.”

Tuition assistance is available if needed, Flores said.

“I’m hoping they come and talk to me over the summer, like a lot of new families.”


St. Bernard welcomes two communities of African immigrants at a May 7 Mass. SUSAN SZALEWSKI

A parish carnival is part of the welcoming earlier this month. SUSAN SZALEWSKI

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