The Birth of Simbang Gabi in San Francisco

 Current SF Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, Seminarian Brandon Dang, Former Archbishop George Niederauer, and Nellie Hizon at the St. Patrick Seminary Christmas gather in 2014. (Photo by Seminarian Ernesto Jandonero)

Current SF Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, Seminarian Brandon Dang, Former Archbishop George Niederauer, and Nellie Hizon at the St. Patrick Seminary Christmas gather in 2014. (Photo by Seminarian Ernesto Jandonero)

For 20 years Filipino church leader Nellie Hizon has been lighting the “parol” lanterns at this time of year in her parish of St. Stephen’s. It’s all in commemoration of Advent, the time for the parish’s annual Simbang Gabi (night Masses) held daily at the crack of dawn from December 16 to 24. What started out as a handful of attendees in the basement of the modest church has now become a major Simbang Gabi consortium in San Francisco.

“As the community at the time this started was not familiar with this Filipino tradition, many of us organizers were not allowed to hold the Masses inside the church,” she reminisced. “It was literally an ‘underground’ movement,” she quipped about the Masses being held in the church basement for years before it was acceptable to hold these services inside the church itself.

Advent in the western world has mostly been a somber period of preparing for Christmas in the Catholic community until Simbang Gabi (sometimes called Misa de Gallo or “Mass of the Rooster” when it is held before the break of dawn) came into the picture. Joy fuels these Masses; the hymn “Gloria in Excelcis Deo” which is usually omitted during Advent has been sung, upon papal indult decades ago, at every Simbang Gabi Mass. This major religious event, which has carried on for over four centuries in the Philippines has finally gone global, thanks to the efforts of Filipinos who carried the tradition with them as they migrated across the globe.

A practice brought by Spaniards to the Philippines from Mexico in the 16th century, the tradition has been dubbed a “doorbuster,” to describe the jam-packed attendance of the nine-day novena Masses in most churches in the Philippines.

 Parols lit up outside of St. Mary’s Cathedral during Simbang Gabi Commissioning Mass are visible to pedestrians and driver along Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Edgar Estonina)

Parols lit up outside of St. Mary’s Cathedral during Simbang Gabi Commissioning Mass are visible to pedestrians and driver along Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Edgar Estonina)

Simbang Gabi was mostly a nostalgic religious event in small venues for homesick overseas Filipinos decades ago, until a blessing from the Secretariat in the Vatican made it an official event of the SF Archdiocese in 2008. How that came about was the result of San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer’s initiative along with the tireless efforts of Hizon, who was determined to share the joys of Simbang Gabi with the world.

In 2005, Cardinal William Levada, then San Francisco’s Archbishop, left for Rome to serve under Pope Benedict XVI. He was replaced by Archbishop George Niederauer who was reputed to be an attentive “shepherd,” a “hands on” pastoral leader who naturally connected with his flock. His term, which started in the midst of scandals rocking the Catholic Church at the time, was a welcome change for the beleaguered Catholic community in San Francisco.

In 2006, after his installation as Archbishop of San Francisco, Niederauer reorganized the archdiocese and appointed his new cabinet. He also reinstated the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, which was inactivated after Levada’s departure. The Council had its only Filipino member, Nellie Hizon, who was also serving on the advisory board of St. Patrick’s Seminary. She was the liaison between the archbishop and the huge population of Filipino Catholics in San Francisco.

After a year of getting to know the community, Niederauer reconvened the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council in September 2007, which held its first official meeting the following month. Hizon handed him then a formal invitation to San Francisco’s multi-parish celebration of Simbang Gabi held in St. Stephen’s Church. Niederauer enthusiastically accepted the invitation to be the main Celebrant of the 9th day Mass at 6:00 am on December 24 and invited liturgy musician/composer Fr. Ricky Manalo to join him.

This was not Niederauer’s first Simbang Gabi, but perhaps it was the first time he had to get up before the crack of dawn as he also agreed to participate in the pre-liturgy staging of “Panuluyan” (a re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for an inn on their way to Bethlehem). The archbishop was reportedly moved by the excitement stirred by the multi-parish gathering and the attendees’ liveliness so early in the morning, and the presence of 12 other priests from the different parishes who were ready to con-celebrate Mass and squeeze in at the church’s modest sized altar. (It was noted that the archbishop also brought cookies as offering for the after-Mass refreshments.)

 Parish organizers of Simbang Gabi in the San Francisco Archdiocese gather for the blessing of the parol and commissioning rites. (Photo courtesy of the Simbang Gabi Community of San Francisco)

Parish organizers of Simbang Gabi in the San Francisco Archdiocese gather for the blessing of the parol and commissioning rites. (Photo courtesy of the Simbang Gabi Community of San Francisco)

At the start of 2008, the archbishop’s cabinet members advised Hizon that two major events were slated for the Cathedral, and for the Filipino community, it would be commissioning rites for the start of Simbang Gabi festivities.

“Commissioning rites are a ‘go forth’ blessing for evangelization of this tradition. Although the Simbang Gabi Masses are powerful celebrations on their own, having the commissioning rites elevates the standing of what the Filipinos accomplished in bringing this 400-year-old tradition to other countries outside the Philippines,” the archbishop’s cabinet members wrote.

With that, Hizon promptly wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI (who visited New York that year) asking for “his blessing of all Filipinos all over the world who continue to promote the spirituality of Christmas by way of our centuries-old tradition of Simbang Gabi.”

A month later, the San Francisco Chancellor Msgr. C. Michael Padazinski, JCD, on behalf of the Vatican Secretary of State, sent the Pope’s blessing to all Filipinos on the occasion of Simbang Gabi. Finally, Simbang Gabi outside the Philippines became more than a religious tradition brought by nostalgic Filipino immigrants in their adopted homelands. The Vatican has now sanctioned it as a movement to evangelize the message of God’s love for the world through the birth of Jesus Christ.

For this, Hizon, received the medal and insignia of the Papal Honor on August 14, 2011 from the Most Reverend George Niederauer, Archbishop of San Francisco, at St. Mary's Cathedral, for her efforts "in institutionalizing the Simbang Gabi Commissioning Celebration in the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2008, the first archdiocesan-wide celebration in the US." The Bene Merenti medal is awarded by the Pope on occasion to members of the clergy and laity for service to the Catholic Church.


As the community at the time this started was not familiar with this Filipino tradition, many of us organizers were not allowed to hold the Masses inside the church.

The commissioning rites have been moved to different venues since then, but in 2014, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, who replaced Niederauer after he retired in 2013, extended an invitation to Archbishop Bernardito "Barney" Cleopas Auza to preside over the Commissioning Rite that year. Archbishop Auza at the time was just appointed by Pope Francis I as Vatican envoy in the United Nations, so it seemed fitting to resume celebration of the Simbang Gabi Commissioning Mass in St. Mary’s Cathedral. This year, Archbishop Cordileone presided over the December 9, 2015 commissioning rite, and parol lanterns will once again remain lit for nine days in San Francisco’s parishes.

As for her role as a champion of promoting the merits of a less somber Advent celebration, a period that connects the deep Marian roots of the liturgy of the season with the Filipino devotion to the Mother Mary through this nine-day event, Hizon sums it up with this reflection:

“I was a child of about five then, watching in delight the dancing hues of gray, orange and yellow from the tinder that began the fire from the clay stove. I tended the little sparks that jumped into the other kindling. I watched, tended and delighted in the glow of the stable fire.

“This to me is what the efforts on Simbang Gabi have become. The light is the inspiration that moves us. The clay stove is what our hearts could contain: clay of the earth, capable of igniting powerful love. The tinder and kindling are our pockets of efforts, ready to dance in colorful hues when we combine and united. The dancing hues of color are our parols.

“I watched, I did not create the fire. I tended, fathered the tinder and kindly, noted when the fire could die out, when a slight sway of my paper fan was needed to keep it going. I delighted in the stable fire that could now cook meals, providing warmth, light when we gathered around it.

“Nonetheless, the fire still needs to be tended to keep it going …”


 Mnzel Delacruz

Mnzel Delacruz

Manzel Delacruz is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.


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