This weekend, the Christians begin the season of Advent. In Guyana, we begin the Novena on 15 to 23 December. Christmas Novena has a long history and tradition, which could be traced back to 1861 when Fr Benedict Schembri celebrated Christmas midnight Mass at the newly constructed Church on Main Street (Sacred Heart Church). This church basically was to help the Portuguese from Madeira who spoke mostly Portuguese. Under the padroado (the privilege of patronage extended by the Pope to the King of Portugal) system, initially Sacred Heart operated as the “Portuguese Church” being the centre of pastoral activities for the Portuguese community throughout Guiana. Only in 1932 was this status revised and Sacred Heart constituted as a normal parish. The indefatigable Schembri established guilds and charitable associations, organized religious and cultural events and generally strengthened the bonds of fellowship and faith among the Portuguese. Of particular note was the introduction of the Christmas Novena, with a 3 am mass on each of the 9 mornings before Christmas. This practice rapidly became a popular and enduring feature of Catholic churches throughout Guiana. Even the Bemdita Sajaes, a hymn to Our Lady with words in the Madeiran dialect of Portuguese became a much-loved feature of many an African and Indian Catholic family Christmas.
Rev Fr Jerri Dias SJ