Sudanese Catholics celebrate Easter in Portland

Immigrants from the war-torn African country take part in a traditional Azande Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Victor Tartizio, 13, and his father, Dennis, play the ngbaningbo Sunday during an Azande Mass for members of Greater Portland’s Sudanese community at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

While the words being sung made no sense to those who do not speak Azande, the sentiment they expressed was obvious: joy and exultation as the voices swelled with backup from tambourines, drums and a xylophone-like instrument.

The music filled the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, where dozens of Sudanese Catholics assembled to celebrate Easter Sunday. The service was spoken in English and Azande, the language spoken by most of Maine’s Sudanese immigrants.

Victor Tartizio, 13, of Portland played the ngbaningbo, the xylophone-like instrument made out of wood.

Victor said his father taught him to play, and his father had learned from his uncle.

“Once you practice a lot, it gets easier. ” said Victor.

The service and the congregation included many children. Four young girls led a dancing processional up the aisle and little children dressed in white dresses and tiny suits wiggled and giggled in the pews.

The Easter service always features baptisms.

“Easter Sunday is very important for the Sudanese or African people to have their kids baptized, ” said Deacon Michael Augustino, who emigrated to the United Sates from Sudan in 2000.

In Sudan hundreds of children would be baptized during Easter Mass, Augustino said.

“They have it in their minds that Jesus was raised on that day, so the kids will follow,” he said.

The Easter service in Portland often takes place during turmoil back in war-torn Sudan.

This year the service coincided with the ouster of Sudan’s autocratic president on April 11, following four months of street protests. The military announced that President Omar Hassan al-Bashir had been removed, ending a 30-year dictatorship marked by civil war, corruption and conflict.

Since then tens of thousands of protesters have converged on the Sudanese capital of Khartoum to pressure the military to hand over power to a civilian government.

“There’s still  a lot of chaos,” said Augustine.

There are about 3,000 Sudanese immigrants in Maine. About 2,000 live in the Portland area and the rest in the Lewiston area.

The immigrants started to arrive in Maine as refugees in the 1990s from the refugee camps where they fled after civil war broke out in Sudan.

The Sudanese community surged in Maine in 2000 during a conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan.