When Father Deogratias Rwegasira was a young teacher in a Catholic school in Kigoma, Tanzania, a priest asked him if he wanted to be married.

“No,” Rwegasira said, “I want to be like you.”

The words just popped out of his mouth.

“I don’t know where that answer came from,” he said.

Fast forward to Aug. 7, when Rwegasira, 62, celebrated his Silver Jubilee of Priestly Ordination — not in Tanzania, but here in Lancaster, at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 440 St. Joseph St., where he now resides.

Since 2019, Rwegasira has led a Swahili Mass at St. Joseph’s at 3:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Sunday of the month. Before the pandemic, about 75 to 100 worshippers regularly attended. Now services are also on Zoom. He also serves as a full-time Catholic chaplain at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital.

The Lancaster Region of the Order of Malta, a Catholic lay religious order, helped establish the Swahili Mass at St. Joseph’s while helping a Swahili-speaking refugee family settle in Lancaster. Pre-COVID-19, worshippers also came from Harrisburg, Allentown, Reading, Norristown, New Jersey and Maryland.

“Swahili is considered a bridge language for numerous tribes of people in East Africa,” Rwegasira said of his native language, the official language of Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“If you take those who speak it as a first, second or third language … it would be millions of people,” he said.

He said the Disney movie “The Lion King” features Swahili words, such as Simba (lion), jambo (hello), rafiki (friend) and hakuna matata (no problem).

Swahili Mass

Rev. Deogratias Rwegasira displays a framed message of blessings from Pope Francis during his Silver Jubilee of Priestly Ordination at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021. The service included Mass, music from a Swahili Choir and Rwegasira's renewal of priestly vows.

A service in Swahili

On Sept. 12, Rwegasira led a Swahili Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church dressed in a flowing green and gold gown that matched the green tablecloths and gold Communion cups on the altar table.

About 50 people attended the almost two-hour Mass, mostly in Swahili, but with some English. Most were young. Some came with infants and toddlers in tow.

Some attendees donned colorful African garb, in shades from gold to bright pink, in eye-catching patterns.

About half the service was song, led by Richard Lulinda, music director, with Charlotte Goybu as choir director. During congregational hymns, many in the congregation gently swayed and quietly clapped to the music.

Lector Mwandela Menge led the service in Swahili from the raised pulpit.

Swahili Mass

A Swahili choir sings hymns during a celebration of Mass and a Silver Jubilee of Priestly Ordination for Rev. Deogratias Rwegasira at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021. The service included a celebration of Mass, music from a Swahili Choir and Rwegasira's renewal of priestly vows.

Father Rwegasira preached in Swahili on a gospel reading, He also chanted in Swahili during the service. At the end, he thanked all for coming.

“Jesus loves you, and so do I,” he said.

Mary Kisesewa, who immigrated here from Kenya in 2004 with her husband and family, lives in Reading and met Rwegasira when he was in Allentown.

“Father Deo is very close to me,” Kisesewa said after the service. “He’s helping me share the word of God, because many from Kenya speak Swahili.”

Kisesewa has worked for close to 15 years for Supportive Concepts for Families, in Reading, as a caretaker for those with intellectual disabilities.

Caroline Muthoka Wavia is a gospel artist, motivational speaker and counselor on YouTube, Facebook and at www.

carolinewavia.com. She sings in Swahili, Kamba and English.

Wavia lives in King of Prussia and also moved to the U.S. from Kenya in 2004. This was her first time at the Swahili service, which she attended with her mother and 12-year-old daughter.

“It’s a very nice way of bringing us together and making us feel like we’re at home, speaking Swahili,” Wavia said.

Swahili Mass

St. Joseph Catholic Church attendees participate in a celebration ofMass and a Silver Jubilee of Priestly Ordination for Rev. Deogratias Rwegasira on Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021. The service included a celebration of Mass, music from a Swahili Choir and Rwegasira's renewal of priestly vows.

From Tanzania to Lancaster

Rwegasira was raised Catholic by parents who were among the first generation of Catholic converts in Tanzania. He served as an altar boy from age 6.

A graduate of Katoke Teachers Training College, near his home town of Bukoba, he taught in Kigoma, Tanzania, from 1981-85, before joining the Apostles of Jesus Missionaries at age 27.

Ordained on June 30, 1996, in his home parish, he served as spiritual director of seminarians at Apostles of Jesus at Kiserian Junior Seminary in Ngong Dio, Kenya, where he also trained as a musician and composer, introducing music lessons to his fellow seminarians.

So far he has written more than 50 liturgical hymns, and written and produced two albums, “The Divine Mercy Chaplet in Song,” for which he obtained a copyright certificate from the Library of Congress in 2008; and “Lord We Adore You,” in 2010. His Silver Jubilee service featured a number of his hymns, some sung in Swahili by the Swahili Mass Choir, featuring 10 teens and adults.

In the United States, Rwegasira served as parochial vicar at St. George, Our Lady of Mount Caramel and St. Stephen churches in Shenandoah, in the Diocese of Allentown, from 2000-2004, and parochial vicar at St. Bernard, St. Joseph and St. Michael churches in Easton, from 2004-2008 — which then merged into Our Lady of Mercy, for which he was the first pastor from 2008 to 2014.

In June 2014, he moved to the Diocese of Harrisburg and became a chaplain. He first led the Swahili Mass at San Juan Bautista Catholic Church, 425 S. Duke St., but due to the pandemic, he moved it to St. Joseph for social distancing.

In August 2020, Bishop Ronald W. Gainer appointed Rwegasira spiritual moderator of the Black Catholic ministry of the diocese. The bishop praised Rwegasira for his fidelity and perseverance at his Silver Jubilee service.

“What a wonderful, joyful time today,” Gainer said. “What a blessing to have Father Deo here.”

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