Historic Day: First Columban from Myanmar ordained

Ordination of Francis Xavier Nbwi la Aung. Photo: RVAKachin

Ordination of Francis Xavier Nbwi la Aung. Photos: RVAKachin

The feast of St Joseph the Worker, 1st May 2024, was a historic day for the Columban Missionaries as Francis Xavier Nbwi la Aung from Myanmar was ordained priest at St Luke’s Church, Edin, Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar. He is the first Columban from Myanmar to be ordained.

The Columbans began missionary work in Burma (Myanmar) in 1936 among the Kachin tribal people in northern Burma. By 1939, the Columban area had become the Prefecture Apostolic of Banmaw (transition stage to becoming a diocese) under Columban Bishop Patrick Usher and was served by 38 Columban priests. This area became the Diocese of Myitkyina in 1961, with Columban Bishop John Howe as its first bishop. 

Burma was one of the richest countries in Asia in the 1950s, exporting rice, jade, gold, rubber and teak wood. In the great Irrawaddy River it had a perfect natural highway running from the far North to the Indian Ocean. Now it is one of the poorest countries in Asia. It was a tragic turn in history when the military-socialist government took over the country in 1964. They had nationalised the schools and hospitals, and in 1966, the Myanmar Government ordered all missionaries who had arrived after 1948 to leave the country.

In 1977, Columban Bishop Howe consecrated Fr Paul Grawng as the new Bishop of Myitkyina. Bishop Howe had ordained Fr Paul as the first Kachin priest in 1965. The last three Columban Missionaries eventually left Myanmar in 1979. By that time, there were five Kachin priests in the diocese.

After 1979, Bishop John Howe continued to work for the Kachin people through his work with Radio Veritas in the Philippines. Other Columbans continued support over the years in various forms. From 1998, Columbans Fathers Colm Murphy, John Colgan, Eamon Sheridan and Eamonn O‘Brien worked in Myitkyina in various apostolates ranging from formation to pastoral planning and services to the very remote areas.

After an absence of over 30 years and with a warm welcome from Bishop Francis of Myitkyina, Myanmar, Columban priests started preparing their return to the diocese in 2015. On July 1st, 2016, a new Columban Mission team comprising priests and lay missionaries began to formally serve the Kachin people of Myanmar once again. The Columban Sisters had returned to the Diocese of Myitkyina, Myanmar, earlier in 2003 and were joined by Columban Fr Neil Magill in 2006.

The security and political situation in Kachin State remains unsure and unresolved. The nation of Myanmar is a union of seven divisions and seven states, each of which is the homeland of one of the main indigenous groups (Kachin State being one).

The Kachin Army is still fighting for more autonomy, and for a share of the mineral wealth of their areas. As the conflict continues, and the refugees, although deeply desiring to return to their villages, still lack courage to do so, due to the presence of landmines and ongoing fierce military skirmishes.

Columbans are proud to be walking with the Kachin people, and even though Myanmar is still in dark times, we believe that one day they will rest once again in the green pastures of their native soil. And even more proud that one of them is now a Columban; the wheel has come full circle.

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