Filipino Catholics on Long Island and in New York City are gearing up for their 35th annual celebration of one of the most important religious observances in their homeland — the Feast of Santo Niño de Cebú, honoring the infant Jesus.
The Santo Niño devotion traces its origins to the establishment of Christianity in the Philippines nearly 500 years ago. There, the third Sunday of January is a major feast day honoring the Santo Niño, translated as Holy Child.
Filipino communities across the United States hold their own festivities. On Long Island, scores are expected to attend a 2 p.m. service Sunday at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood that will include a Mass and recitation of the rosary, followed by a celebration featuring Filipino food, clothing and dance.
“It’s a big thing among Filipinos — not only here for us, but also in other parts” around the world, said Cynthia Marcelo, a Bay Shore resident who heads the Santo Niño Prayer Group of Suffolk, which promotes devotion to the religious icon.
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was said to have given a statue of the Santo Niño as a gift to the king and queen of Cebú after he landed in the Philippines in 1521 as a representative of the Spanish crown, bringing Christianity with him. The king and queen converted and were baptized.
With the arrival of more Spanish conquistadors in 1565, Cebú was destroyed. The 12-inch-tall statue made of dark wood survived the coastal town’s sacking and the fires — a sign to the faithful that it has miraculous powers.
The Santo Niño de Cebú today is kept in a basilica in Cebú. The oldest surviving Catholic relic in the Philippines, it depicts the infant Jesus as a king in royal raiment, wearing an elaborate crown and holding symbols of Christian authority.
Many of those who come to Sunday’s celebration in Brentwood will bring their own small statues to be blessed by a priest, Marcelo said.
The Philippines is one of the most heavily Catholic countries in the world. In 2015, Pope Francis broke the record for the largest papal crowd when a Mass he celebrated there attracted 6 million to 7 million people.
The central message of the Santo Niño is that Jesus “has come to bring peace, joy and love to the families,” said the Rev. Lennard Sabio, a Filipino who is the spiritual adviser to the Suffolk group and an associate pastor at St. Louis de Montfort Roman Catholic Church in Sound Beach.
For centuries, Filipinos have venerated the religious relic. During the annual feast in Cebú, the original Santo Niño is carried through the streets as hundreds of thousands of worshippers walk in procession.
Many of them carry their own replicas of the Santo Niño, wear masks and costumes, and perform a traditional dance, said Susan Guerrero, 61, a Farmingville resident who also helps lead the Suffolk County group.
“If you go into a Filipino home, you will always see in their house an altar with the Santo Niño,” she said.
On Long Island, home to an estimated 16,000 people of Filipino ancestry, according to the U.S. Census, devotion to the Santo Niño has gone on for decades.
The first feast day was celebrated in 1983 in the home of a Filipino family, Marcelo said. Eventually, the annual event was held in Catholic churches.
Throughout the year, the Suffolk group holds prayer services every Saturday and Sunday in the homes of some of the faithful. A replica of the Santo Niño is transferred from home to home each week.
This year, for nine nights prior to the feast day, the faithful have been holding devotional services at St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church in Dix Hills.
The event Sunday at St. Anne’s will be a way for the Filipino community both to celebrate their homeland’s key religious icon and meet up with compatriots they rarely get to see, Guerrero said.
“It’s like being in the Philippines while being in America,” she said.