by: Ellen Baverman and Lindsay Braud
This article first appeared in Comboni Missions Magazine Fall 2019.
In the winter of 1939, Comboni Missionary Father (later Bishop) Edward Mason arrived at the port of New York. He came to the United States to establish the North American Province of the Comboni Missionaries.
Their commitment today is the same as in 1939—to serve the forgotten and often overlooked communities wherever their missions are located. Their focus in the North American Province is pastoral work among marginalized communities, often among minority groups, adapting their ministries to the needs of the times. Together with their Comboni Missionary Sisters, Comboni Lay Missionaries, staff, supporters, and collaborators they form the Comboni family.
Their gifts and talents—and limitations—vary greatly, but they remain united in the common goal to bring compassion and love to God’s people.
Currently they have communities in Cincinnati, Ohio— home to the provincial headquarters; Los Angeles, California; Newark, New Jersey; La Grange Park, Illinois; and Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
Since the 1940s the Comboni Missionaries’ provincial house and mission promotion center have been located in Cincinnati. The old Sacred Heart Seminary now houses the development, finance, mission, and communications offices for the province. This central hub coordinates communication between all their locations on the continent and keeps in touch directly with our missions overseas.
The provincial headquarters also hosts the Comboni Mission Museum, displaying artifacts from around the world. Some of the pieces are made from ebony, ivory, and other exotic materials. A few of the rarest items include grammars and language books created by missionaries; some helped establish the first written expression of their languages. Each artifact holds a rich story connected to the missions or mission countries.
Of course, the Comboni Missionaries are also active in the local community, celebrating Mass, administering the sacraments, and hosting events.
Every summer, Comboni missionaries from around the world visit the provincial house in Cincinnati for mission appeals and training. During their stay, they join in “Meet the Missionaries” a public event where missionaries take center stage to share their missionary experiences and work.
One of the biggest public events at the Cincinnati location is Taste of Mission. It is a multicultural festival with live entertainment, music, and foods from countries around the world served by the Comboni Missionaries.
During the Christmas season, families flock to the Mission Center to enjoy a unique presentation of the story of the Incarnation. During its more than seventy years, the Nativity Experience has become a holiday tradition that families have shared for multiple generations. The Mission Center has added to the celebration by opening the museum for tours during the event and hosting a Christmas boutique, a Mission Market, and a display of creches from around the world.
Father Louie Gasparini has dedicated much of his ministry to Hispanic communities, serving as the Director for Hispanic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Comboni Missionaries also pastor San Carlos Borromeo Church, serving the Hispanic community in Cincinnati. In 1997, they founded Su Casa—the primary provider of social, educational, language, employment and health care services to the Hispanic/ Latino community in Greater Cincinnati. Its mission is to help develop self-sufficiency for the poor and vulnerable of the immigrant community. Today, Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio is responsible for this ministry.
The Comboni Missionaries started expanding their mission to Canada in the 1960s by taking over pastoral care for parishes and eventually opening a community in the province of Quebec.
By the 1980s most of our pastoral work was in Ontario and the community was moved to Kitchener. Today, the Comboni Missionaries are responsible for St. Joseph and St. Ann parishes in Kitchener. In both parishes, the missionaries provide sacramental ministry and care for the spiritual needs of their parishioners. This includes celebrating the sacraments, religious instruction, liturgical celebrations, mission awareness and promotion at area schools, and support for the many refugees and immigrants in the area.
St. Joseph parish is home to two African communities—Eritrean and South Sudanese. The South Sudanese community regularly holds Mass in English, with readings and songs in Arabic. With the help of Father Abab, a Franciscan from Eritrea, the Eritrean community celebrates Mass in the Ge’ez rite. Comboni Missionary Father Tom Vermiglio said that Mass can sometimes last as long as three hours, but it is very beautiful.
Both parishes share a very active St. Vincent de Paul Society. Every year they host a large pig roast and fund-raiser. The pig roast is a tradition started by Father Tom, who has hosted such an event in every mission he’s served in the United States. He’s been doing this since 1994.
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY
In 1956, the Comboni Missionaries opened a mission center in Montclair, New Jersey. The community has changed a few times over the years and is now housed at St. Lucy Parish in Newark. The parish began as a flourishing Italian community in 1891. The Comboni Missionaries were invited to minister there as the parish began to struggle (a fairly typical way the order has established a presence in its many locations). Today the missionaries at St. Lucy celebrate Masses in Italian, Spanish, and Latin.
The St. Lucy community provides mission awareness and promotion to its surrounding area. Today, they also minister to the local Hispanic community and are involved with Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) work in cooperation with various NGOs, the United Nations, VIVAT International, and the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN).
The parish houses an impressive thirty-foot tall nativity display as well as the national shrine of St. Gerard, the patron of expectant mothers. Both of these saintly attractions draw visitors from far and wide.
LA GRANGE PARK, ILLINOIS
The Comboni Missionaries have been serving in the Chicago area since the 1970s, and at their current location in La Grange Park since 1985. This Mission Promotion Center serves the Hispanic and Italian Catholic communities. In addition to Monday evening community Masses, the missionaries at La Grange Park host a Hispanic Mass and social gathering for the local community one Saturday every month.
Every year the La Grange Center hosts Comboni Fest. This event is an evening of celebration and worship. Comboni Fest always begins with an outdoor Mass, held on the grounds of the mission center. After the liturgy, guests are invited to browse a silent auction and a special Comboni table alongside the live music, dancing, games, and food. This event serves as a celebration of all supporters, benefactors, and volunteers who work in the spirit of St. Daniel Comboni.
The center also hosts an annual Dinner Dance as well as Mission Evenings that welcome friends and benefactors to learn more about the Comboni Missionaries.
HOLY CROSS PARISH, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
The Holy Cross Parish in South Central Los Angeles has been a thriving community for more than one hundred years. The Comboni Missionaries started ministering there in 1970 at the invitation of the archdiocese. Just like at any parish, they serve the community through celebrating the sacraments, religious instruction, Bible study, parish groups, and public outreach. Masses are celebrated in English and Spanish. The Hispanic community shares their rich cultural heritage with the parish through religious celebrations such as La Posada, the Three Kings Celebration, and a procession on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A Mayan community often contributes to the celebration of Mass with traditional songs and dance.
Most recently, vocations have started to grow at Holy Cross with two home-based seminarians. These young men are discerning a call to the missionary priesthood, while working and studying at home.
SACRED HEART PARISH, RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA
In 2016, the Comboni Missionaries started serving Sacred Heart Parish, a Hispanic community in the diocese of San Bernardino. They celebrate the sacraments, provide religious instruction, and serve the community through parish-based ministry.
COMBONI MISSION CENTER, COVINA, CALIFORNIA
The Comboni Missionaries have a lively and engaged community in Covina, where they have served for several decades.
Mass is celebrated daily in the chapel. A Spanish Mass is offered Tuesday evenings. Confessions are available during morning and afternoon hours and by appointment. Special events throughout the year bring friends and benefactors to the mission center—Christmas Party, Mission evening, Music for the Missions, and more. On special occasions, they schedule potluck-dinner gatherings for friends and spend time highlighting stories or spotlighting a visiting missionary.