On Sept. 16, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown L.A. will welcome hundreds of Catholics from across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — the largest and most diverse diocese in the nation — proudly representing nearly 40 different ethnic communities at the 13th annual Celebration of Cultures Mass.

Archbishop José H. Gomez will preside at the special Mass at 9:30 a.m., with several auxiliary bishops concelebrating. This year’s celebration is themed “Communion of Communities” and will highlight the 100th anniversary of the miraculous apparitions of Our Lady of Fátima, patroness of Portugal.

The introductory rite for the Mass will feature traditional Korean dance with dramatic drumming and rhythmic sounds. Seven languages will be spoken during the liturgy, and representatives of several of the ethnic communities in attendance will carry the altar cloths and offertory gifts during the Eucharistic celebration.

In recognition of the upcoming Celebration of Cultures Mass, Angelus News spoke with local leaders and representatives of three different ethnic ministry groups about the importance of their Catholic faith, their personal connections to their cultural heritage and the inescapable link between their roots and religion.

The gift of cultures

Patty Santiago still vividly recalls the exact date her life changed forever: May 7, 1977, the day she boarded a plane with one of her sisters in their home country of the Philippines, bound for their new home and new life in the U.S.

“I still remember me and my sister on the airplane — our first plane ride,” Santiago recalled with a smile. Upon arrival, they joined their older sister and mother, who were already residing in the U.S. Santiago remembers it as an “exciting” time, as they adapted to becoming “Filipino Americans,” especially because they were reuniting with loved ones who helped ease their transition.

But, she noted, they also retained their cultural heritage and religious beliefs, most of which were part of Santiago’s life since early childhood. While she was growing up she recalls often seeing her maternal grandmother and mother “deep in prayer, rosaries in hand, murmuring in front of the crucifix … or praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary, [specifically] Our Lady of Perpetual Help in our house.”

“I have vivid memories of them, praying, always praying,” she recalled. Her family would also celebrate fiestas with neighbors and fellow church members that combined religious traditions and cultural foods or music, such as honoring Santo Ni√±o de Ceb√∫ (the Child Jesus) every January and Simbang Gabi during advent.

For Santiago, who attends Our Lady of Peace Church in North Hills and serves as president of the leadership council for the Filipino Ministry group of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the annual Cultures Mass is “a very good experience.”

“I like to participate because I enjoy seeing the different ethnic communities coming together,” she said. “It’s a chance to thank God for the gift of each other’s talents and cultures. Also, for me, I thank God for the leaders of our local Church, especially Archbishop Gomez, our bishops and priests in the archdiocese, for the support they give to the Filipino community and other ethnic communities.”

Choosing faith

Born and raised in Croatia, Nada Pritisanac Matulich lived part of her life under communist rule, when her homeland was part of Yugoslavia. Despite the limitations on religious freedom under Communism, she nonetheless grew up quietly learning, regularly practicing and strongly embracing her Catholic faith.

“I was born and raised, and I am still strongly in my heart and my soul, Catholic,” said Matulich vehemently. While it was not necessary to attend underground churches to practice Catholicism before the fall of Communism in Croatia, “if you [openly] believed in God and were not communist, you could never get good jobs or [certain] opportunities … and you were always watched.”

“Since I was a young girl, I knew that if I didn’t ... participate in the Communist Party, that my life was not going to be easy,” she recalled.

But for Matulich, when weighing her Catholicism against Communism, her faith always prevailed. As a young teenager, Matulich even helped launch a Croatian Catholic religious organization, which gave her the unique opportunity to travel to several different religious conferences in various European countries.

Today Matulich, who has been living in the U.S. for 12 years, attends Mary Star of the Sea Church in San Pedro, which has a robust Croatian Catholic community. She is also president of the U.S. chapter of the Croatian World Congress and is a member of other similar professional Croatian organizations.

And Catholicism still remains at the center of her heart and life.

“Going to Mass — especially the Cultures Mass — is very special for me, because we show each other that we can pray together and do something from our hearts to have a better world around us, to help and support each other,” said Matulich.

‘The true presence of God’

Vilma Mendez is a wife, mother and a parishioner at St. Pius X Church in Santa Fe Springs. A native of Nicaragua, she immigrated to the U.S. from the largest of the seven Central American nations 30 years ago, at the age of 18.

“I am an American citizen, but of course I also still love my homeland,” said Mendez. “I left at the end of [Nicaragua’s civil] war, because there was so much persecution against the people who had worked with the government.”

Mendez moved to the U.S. with her parents and siblings under political asylum and started a new life. She put down roots in the U.S., which became “home” and she eventually became a naturalized citizen. Over the years she has traveled back to Nicaragua several times, and to this day maintains a strong connection to the cultural traditions of her upbringing in the city of Masaya.

“The United States is very beautiful, but I think it’s natural to miss and yearn for the land where you were born,” said Mendez. “Our culture … is very rich and is very immersed in the [Catholic] faith. … My grandparents taught me a very profound devotion to the faith — and that faith even helped keep me alive.”

Because her family remained in Nicaragua during much of the war, they bore witness to many of its atrocities and even found themselves in harm’s way.

“Where we lived, a bomb was dropped near our home,” she recalled. “It was incredible, because it destroyed all of the surrounding houses and only our home remained intact. … Through that experience and others, I know that it’s my faith that has sustained me.”

Mendez explained that she participates in the Cultures Mass because she enjoys the celebration of so many diverse cultures, all brought together by one shared Catholic faith. She has now attended the Mass for five consecutive years.

“Living our faith, especially when celebrated together,” she explained, “makes us feel the true presence of God.”  

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is located at 555 W. Temple St., Downtown Los Angeles. The Celebration of Cultures Mass will be streamed live at facebook.com/olacathedral.