Holy Ghost Church has begun offering Masses in the Swahili language to serve the Diocese of Knoxville’s growing community of African members.
Father Pontian Kiyimba, AJ, associate pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, is celebrating the Masses in Swahili on the last Saturday of each month at 5 p.m. at Holy Ghost. The first Mass was on May 29.
Father Bill McNeeley, pastor of Holy Ghost, said since he was first assigned to the parish in 2019 he has intentionally reached out to all segments and identifiable groups of the parish.
“It has been especially challenging to reach out to the African community since they represent several countries, each with their own language, though Swahili is common to all of them,” Father McNeeley said. “There are perhaps 30 to 35 such parishioners who attend Mass every Sunday without fail.”
Father McNeeley explained that he recently invited them to dinner at the church to discuss their community.
“Their English is extremely limited, but I have one parishioner who was able to translate. I just asked them what the church could do to help them and their families. The first request was English lessons and the other was Mass in Swahili. English classes will start in September at the Ladies of Charity. These are good people who have been traumatized by years and, in some cases, four or five decades of civil war. Some had known only war for their entire lives until they came to the United States. They are true refugees, just like my own Scots-Irish ancestors, and just like Abraham’s people. They need to be made to feel at home, which means hearing the Mass in their own tongue,” Father McNeeley said.
The “Anglos” have been “very gracious and excited for their African brothers and sisters. A monthly Mass in the African native tongue costs less than two cases of copy paper. It is a small price to pay to help them to adjust to their new homeland. It teaches a wonderful lesson for the rest of the parish, and that is everyone matters,” Father McNeeley said.
Father Kiyimba said Swahili is a language widely spoken in East Africa, noting that such countries include Kenya, Tanzania, his native Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and some parts of South Sudan. It is also spoken is some parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia.
“Since there are different native languages in these countries, Swahili unites all of them since it’s spoken by the different tribes. It is also used in churches and other places of worship. Swahili has united people who find themselves in countries other than their countries of origin,” Father Kiyimba said.
Father Kiyimba credited Father McNeeley and Bishop Richard F. Stika with making the idea a reality.
“Although I have been serving in the Diocese of Knoxville since November 2012, I had not realized that there was a growing need for a Swahili Mass in the Knoxville diocese. It was Father Bill McNeeley, the pastor at Holy Ghost, who contacted me and asked if I could celebrate a Swahili Mass for a group of his parishioners or anyone in the diocese who would like to attend. He found out that there was a growing number of people in the parish who need to be attended to in a language they understand better than other languages available,” Father Kiyimba said. ”Father Bill contacted Bishop Stika. Thanks be to God that Bishop’s response was positive. It was agreed that there will be Mass in the Swahili language at Holy Ghost parish on the last Saturday of every month at 5 p.m. The people welcomed the idea and were excited about it. One of their coordinators commented that even though it is once a month, it may turn out to be a great opportunity to bring many people back to the Church.”
Father Kiyimba said the goal is to help new parishioners be able to connect with God, with the opportunity to learn English also a priority. He plans to work with volunteers in the African community to improve organization and make the liturgy in Swahili more effective and well coordinated.