A parish in Montgomery County is helping spread the gospel in Africa — with a little help from the fashion industry.

Father William Harrison, pastor of Presentation BVM Parish in Cheltenham, was the caller of a designer bag bingo night on August 5 which attracted around 130 players – including five Sisters of St Joseph of Mombasa, in Kenya, whose order was the beneficiary of the evening.

“It’s a new experience for us. We never really played bingo,” admitted Sister Francesca Mumbua, religious education director at Our Lady of Miracles Church in Brooklyn, New York.

Proceeds from game tickets and prizes offered, which ranged in value from $275 to more than $500, will help her ordain to “evangelize the people of God” at her home in Kenya, she said.

Last year’s inaugural bingo for the sisters – two of whom are in residence at the parish – raised more than $5,000, and the funds go a long way, Father Harrison said.

“When it goes to Africa, you can multiply it by six,” he told attendees before drawing the first number.

Sister Francesca agreed, noting that the previous collection had purchased “computers, laptops and projectors” for a number of schools and vocational training centers run by her order in Kenya.

“We try to be an IT community, but the congregation cannot afford (these items) in schools,” she said.

Education is central to the mission of the order, which was founded in 1929 and has grown from four members to 302 sisters, with nearly three dozen young women in formation. The congregation has also established 14 health centers across Kenya to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles.

And although the order is based some 8,600 miles away, its work is close to the heart of Presentation BVM’s Religious Education Coordinator, Mary Ciamaichelo, who, along with her husband Frank and Rosary Club members of the parish, launched the benefit bingo.

Along with their pastor, Father William Harrison, at the numbers, Mary and Frank Ciamaichelo launched an annual designer bag bingo at Presentation BVM Parish in Cheltenham to benefit the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa. (Gina Christian)

Due to family obligations, the Ciamaichelos had to decline a 2021 invitation from the sisters to go on a mission with them to Kenya. Instead, Mary turned to a proven fundraising strategy to support the work of the order.

“We were just sitting down and I said, ‘How about a bingo night? ‘” she said. “And it just exploded.”

Tracing its roots to 16th-century Italy, bingo has long been a part of Catholic parish life in the United States, surviving a brief ban by the Archdiocese of New York during the 20th century to evolve into numerous competitions themes in recent years.

Ciamaichelo said his own family had been “very lucky” with the designer bag bingo and there was virtually no overhead: “We get everything as a donation; all sacks, all hoops” – the match at Presentation hit its mark in style: the tally for last week’s event is estimated at $6,000.

Between rounds, parishioner Susan Reynolds said all those ink-smeared bingo cards add up to “fun for a good cause”.

And while she may not have envisioned a high-end handbag, the Blessed Mother likely would have approved of the players’ efforts to win one for the sisters, said Mary Ciamaichelo.

“I think she would be thrilled,” she said.

Several Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa played their own cards in a designer bag bingo game on August 5 hosted by Presentation BVM Parish in Cheltenham to benefit their order. (Gina Christian)