The beat of the steel pan rings out at Sunday service at Our Lady of Good Counsel, a parish rooted in culture from the Caribbean and West Indies and the African diaspora that has flourished in that region of the world.
In the church, bodies move, hands clap and voices rise in worship to God, not just from members of the music ministry, but the parishioners in every pew.
“When you sing you pray twice — our community really and truthfully embodies that. In our community, you get transported by the music, you get transported by the rhythm,” says choir director Nicole Paguandas. “It’s like a chain reaction happens in that Mass, and the congregation is right along singing with us. If we are stopping, they are stopping. If we are changing keys, they are changing keys. It’s like one big giant choir every Sunday.”
It’s music that led Paguandas to first seek out the church two decades ago. Though she was born in Canada, her path to joining the church’s music ministry began on a trip to her parents’ homeland 20 years ago.
“I went to Trinidad for my aunt’s funeral in the summer of 1997 and it was the first time I had attended a funeral in the Caribbean,” she says, recalling the rites and traditions that lasted nine nights.
“I was touched by the women that prayed every night, prayed the rosary and sang. The intensity of the faith was so overwhelming. I came back (to Canada) and said to myself, ‘there has to be a way for me to marry my faith and my culture, and I have to find an option here in Toronto.’ ”
Paguandas began attending different churches, attempting to rekindle the connection to faith she felt in Trinidad. Then one day, while flipping through the white pages, she stumbled upon the entry “Caribbean Catholic Church, see Archdiocese of Toronto.”
On her very first visit to Our Lady of Good Counsel, Paguandas recaptured that memorable feeling from Trinidad.
“This is where I need to be,” Paguandas remembers thinking. “This is where my faith is going to flourish. This is what my faith journey needs, and it’s going to propel me forward.”
Two weeks later at church, a fellow parishioner, who had heard Paguandas singing in the pews, grabbed her hand at the end of Mass.
“She pulled me up to the choir, and the rest is history,” says Paguandas.
She joined the choir in November 1997 and became director in October 2008.
She jokes that at Our Lady of Good Counsel, they “Caribbean-ize the liturgy.” In other words, the music ministry typically leads liturgical songs in the musical genres of Soca, Calypso and Reggae, while still respecting the liturgical rites. The choir has even sung the American hymn “Amazing Grace” in Ska, a genre also originating in the Caribbean. Paguandas is adamant that the hymns, no matter the tempo, fit the rite occurring during Mass and tie into the readings. At this parish, she adds, they sing everything but the Creed.
“Caribbean music has a strong basis in African music. The tempo, the drumming, that is from the (African) diaspora,” she says, adding that the parish now has a Ugandan choir which leads the Saturday afternoon Mass and who sing in Swahili, Ugandan and English. On special occasions, such as Black History Month events in February, the church’s choirs will team up.
“Caribbean music is contagious. It touches everyone, and somehow draws people into full participation,” says Toronto’s Auxiliary Bishop Robert Kasun, who celebrated Mass at the parish in January for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord. “Non-participation doesn’t really seem to be an option when you are with Caribbean people.”
The liturgical music “speaks to the culture, the background, the vibrancy, the warmness of the people. It speaks to them of home. Music in the Caribbean is part of our way of life,” says Fr. Carlyle Guiseppi, who serves as the parish pastor.
Our Lady of Good Counsel is under the pastoral care of Trinidad’s Holy Ghost Fathers, of which Guiseppi is a member, and the Dominica Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena Port of Spain, Trinidad. The church was established in 1975 on behalf of immigrants from the Caribbean who found it difficult to integrate into the wider Church because of the the difference in style of worship, adds Guiseppi.
Though many church members lived close to Our Lady of Good Counsel during its inception, currently most members live far away. Long-time parishioner Sam Graham, who lives in Pickering, Ont., is happy to make the 45-minute drive to the Caribbean parish. He and his wife Cynthia emigrated from Trinidad in the late 1960s and have been commuting to the church for about 25 years.
“The congregation is a loving, caring congregation,” says Graham. “After Mass, we greet each other, talk about our families and old memories.”
Many parishioners stay for hours after Mass, often socializing in the church hall over Caribbean dishes, such as bake and salt fish (codfish).
The church continues to be a social and cultural hub. It runs a scholarship fund for children of West Indian descent, no matter their ethnicity, and children who attend the parish.
“The archdiocese needs the Caribbean Catholic community in the same way as it needs other ethnic and, or language communities,” says Kasun. “Our Church is anxious to offer a spiritual home to immigrant groups, so that they feel more comfortable and at home in Canada.”