Church joins in Tamil harvest fest

SINGAPORE - At the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Lourdes yesterday evening, men in crisp white dhotis and women in a rainbow of saris were stirring pots of milk, rice and lentils.

As they did so, Father Jacob Yagappa, the church's assistant priest, offered a brief prayer and sprinkled the crowd with holy water.

The church, which caters to migrant workers and expatriates from South India, was celebrating the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal. It started doing so in 2007, said long-time church member Stanislaus Arockia Xavier, who is from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu and helped coordinate the event.

Mr Xavier, 35, a software engineer and permanent resident, said: "Normally, we would celebrate at home. But we would be alone, or perhaps only two to three people.

"If you celebrate inside the church premises, it's a good thing. It will bring more people to the church, as some may not come regularly."

In Tamil Nadu, the Pongal festival is celebrated by all regardless of religion, he explained. Here, it is typically observed by Hindus.

Yesterday's celebration included women drawing elaborate rangoli before a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, decorations of sugarcane and palm leaves, and church members sharing sweetened pongal, a boiled rice dish, with each other.

Even non-Indians got into the act. Filipino church members Lanie Alito, 35, a library assistant, and Lourdes Sanchez, 53, a domestic helper, were helping prepare the pongal.

Our Lady of Lourdes has catered mainly to South Indian migrant workers since it started in 1888, said parish priest, Father Augustine Joseph, and it offers services in English, Tamil, Malayalam and Sinhala. Today, perhaps 5 to 10 per cent of church members are Singaporean; the rest are a mix of permanent residents, expatriate professionals and migrant workers, he said.

In fact, migrant communities have added to Catholic churches' culture in other ways, said the Church's Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.

Besides Pongal, Our Lady of Lourdes also celebrates the Filipino festival of Flores de Mayo in May, while others observe the nine-day traditional Filipino series of Masses at Christmas, called Simbang Gabi.