By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 16, 2010
Every month, Mary Our Queen Parish serves as a gathering place for the growing number of Cameroonian Catholics in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. As a native of Buea, Cameroon, Father Henry Atem, parochial vicar at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, has been closely involved with the group as chaplain since his ordination in 2008.
“After my ordination to the priesthood, I decided to start the Cameroon Mass,” said Father Atem. “So far the Mass has been good. It has really bought together the Cameroon community.”
The group began coming together once a month at Mary Our Queen in November 2008. These joyous celebrations are marked by lively music and large participation and honor some of the group’s native traditions. This November, the Cameroon community will celebrate the two-year anniversary of the Mass.
Attending the August gathering were hundreds of Cameroonians, Father Atem and honored guests including Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Charles Prejean, director of the archdiocesan black Catholic ministry, and the Cameroon ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Joseph Charles Bienvenu Foe-Atangana, who was visiting from Washington, D.C.
Father Atem, the first priest from Cameroon to be ordained in the United States, believes that the Mass has given Catholics from his homeland a way to connect to the Archdiocese of Atlanta, while still preserving their own heritage and culture.
“One of the great cultural challenges that we face is that the Mass as it is said here (in the United States) is culturally different that what we use at home,” said Father Atem. “The Cameroon Mass intends to ground us into what we culturally know as the Mass.”
Both Father Atem and the archbishop, who celebrated the Mass, said it was important for the Cameroonians not only to have a celebration in their cultural tradition, but also to bring that back to their parishes to enrich the diversity on the local level.
“I am delighted to share in this festivity and I warmly welcome you to recognize what a blessing you are to this local church, and especially to all the parish communities to which you belong,” the archbishop said. “It is very important for all of you to bring your wondrous Cameroon culture and rich Catholic faith into those communities and to enliven them with your blessed religious spirit.”
“That desire and that energy has to somehow flourish,” Father Atem said.
According to Father Atem, the Cameroon Catholic community is spread throughout North Georgia, with the largest populations concentrated in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. However, parishes from Gainesville to Conyers to Jonesboro have people from Cameroon as members.
“One of the messages that Father (Atem) drives home to them is to encourage them to participate in their parishes where they attend Mass and where many of them are members,” said Prejean.
“We have seen over time them increasing participation in parish life. They bring with them their cultural experiences,” which can enrich the life of the parish, he added.
Having their presence in Atlanta increases others’ awareness of God’s greatness as well, said Prejean.
The monthly Cameroon Mass at Mary Our Queen is truly a celebration. As the choir sings songs of praise, the assembly gladly joins in, creating a positive and uplifting experience. The colorful garb of those in native dress adds a stunning visual to the already memorable experience.
Cameroon, a country on the west coast of the African continent, is bordered by Nigeria, Chad, and the Central Africa Republic, and on the south by Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Its two major cities are Yaounde, the political capital, and Douala, a major economic city, according to the embassy of the Republic of Cameroon website. The country has a population of 18 million and more than 240 tribes and three main ethnic groups of Bantus, Semi-Bantus and Sudanese. Christianity and Islam are the most widespread religions. The country’s two official languages are English and French, though there are more than 200 languages spoken throughout the country.
In addition to the very earthy tones of the music at the Mass, which feature mostly vocal harmonies and wooden hand drums, other traditions also make their way into the Mass. Before the readings take place, a group of women processes up the aisle with the Bible, ceremonially sweeping the aisle to make way for the word of God. When the Bible reaches the priest at the front of the altar, the crowd erupts in applause.
“The Cameroonian community Mass is unique,” said Prejean. “I can’t overemphasize what the chaplain, Father Atem, and the people he has been able to energize, have brought to the Archdiocese of Atlanta.”
Archbishop Gregory told the community how proud he is of their native son.
“How proud I am of Father Atem as he has already proven himself a faithful and loving priest for all of this Archdiocese of Atlanta,” Archbishop Gregory said. “We are blessed in Atlanta to have the first Cameroon priest in the United States ordained here and what a fine man he is.”
In addition to the Mass, the Cameroonian community also gathers once a year for a cultural celebration of their heritage and their families.
While the Cameroon community has only been gathering formally for less than two years, the spirit of the group is strong. Both Father Atem and Prejean believe they will continue to grow and flourish in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“The Cameroon community and the other African communities, as well as many of the Asian groups, are really forcing us as Catholics in the United States to open up to the cultural and spiritual experiences of these people and the fact that God is everywhere,” said Prejean. “They call us to have a greater appreciation of our God.”
For more information about the Cameroon Catholic community, contact Father Henry Atem at (678) 832-1225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.