Last week, Julie Okoli was moved to do something she hasn't done for a decade: dance in the aisle during regular Sunday morning mass in her hometown.
"We dance and we move. We clap, we raise up our hands to worship and glorify God," the Nigerian-born Winnipegger says during an African-style Catholic mass. "Here (in Winnipeg Catholic churches) we stand still."
The recent formation of St. Kizito African Catholic Community by the Archdiocese of St. Boniface means Catholics of African descent can choose to worship in a familiar style every Sunday, one that incorporates traditional cultural practices into their Catholicism, says the priest in charge.
"The church went back and said we are going to dance, to live our faith in an African expression," explains Rev. André Mangongo of how the Catholic mass was adapted in Africa several decades ago.
After three years of meeting monthly in borrowed facilities, the bilingual English-French African congregation now has a permanent home for a 10 a.m. Sunday mass at the former St. Louis Chapel Le Roi, located on a large treed lot along the Seine River in St. Boniface.
Designed by famed local architect Étienne Gaboury, the 50-year-old modernist building with an asymmetrical shed-style roof, exposed fir beams and indirect light was home to the Spanish parish, Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, for the last four years. That parish recently moved to the Des Meurons Street facilities of the former Ste. Marie parish, which was dissolved Sept. 25.
Named after a 13-year-old boy in Uganda who was martyred for his Christian faith in 1886, the new St. Kizito congregation hopes to attract Winnipeggers with roots in Africa or the Caribbean, and any other Catholics who want another experience in worship.
"It is not a ghetto church which is just for Africans," says Mangongo, a native of Congo who came to Winnipeg in 2009 after seven years in China. "It is a Catholic church which worships in African style."
That means dancing in the aisles during the entrance song or on the way to the front to leave a money offering, moving with the drumbeats during the sung parts of the mass and singing in African languages such as Kiswahili, Igbo and Rawandan.
It also means a potluck meal each Sunday featuring dishes from across the continent and an extended visiting time after the service, says a University of Winnipeg biochemistry professor.
"When the church is over, you don't go home. You greet people and stick around. The church is beyond worship," explains Michael Eze, who came to Canada from Nigeria in 1973.
"The other day after mass, I drove far off and realized I had to talk to someone and I came back and they were still here."
St. Kizito may be a place to celebrate African experience of faith, but it is also a model of co-operation between diverse cultural and national groups, says the Archbishop of St. Boniface, who presided over the congregation's dedication Oct. 10.
"To hold that together is a huge witness to others in the parish and the diocese," says Archbishop Albert LeGatt. "To try to keep united within divisions is a huge witness."
Now supported financially by the diocese, the congregation hopes it can soon offer the full range of parish programs to its new adherents, including catechism for children, activities for youth and support for newcomers to Winnipeg, says Mangongo.
"This community has a few priorities like service to the families to strengthen couples. When they move to a new country, their relationship has many challenges," he says. "We want to help our children to grow up to be good citizens."
But most of all, the people of St. Kizito, many of whom will still stay connected to their home parishes, just long for a place in Winnipeg they can call home, says Vincent Okoli, husband of Julie.
"We just want to worship together as Africans," says the father of four. "This is a testimony that Africans, no matter how different they are, they can work together and worship together."