Kachin Catholics make their mark on Myanmar’s Strife-Torn Frontier - Part 2

Sr Susanna Choi, founder of Community Healthcare and Development (CHAD) and Teresa Blowick. - Photo:St Columbans Mission SocietySr Susanna Choi, founder of Community Healthcare and Development (CHAD) and Teresa Blowick. - Photo:St Columbans Mission Society

Part 2: A vibrant Church begins

The Columban mission started among the ethnic Kachin people in 1936, marking a new era in evangelisation. By 1939, the Banmaw area was an apostolic prefecture. Some 38 priests served the territory under the leadership of Columban Bishop Patrick Usher. The Diocese of Myitkyina was created in 1961 with Columban Bishop John Howe as the first bishop.

The Columban missionaries faced enormous trials in serving the Kachin people, who lived in a sparsely populated territory of rugged mountains. Each priest was responsible for looking after a huge parish with as many as 38 villages and a central mission station, church records say. The priests and catechists travelled on ponies to visit outlying stations, meet communities, administer the sacraments, and treat ailments such as fever, skin rashes and colds.

They set up new parishes and schools as Catholics grew in number. Within a few years, the area had 13,000 baptised Catholics and some 7,000 catechumens, prompting the Columbans to erect 19 brick and wooden churches and several clinics and schools. They also started a catechist school in Banmaw in 1939, designed to train catechists to serve the faithful amid a shortage of priests. It moved to Tangphre in Myitkyina in 1957. In 1978, the school became St Luke’s College – Socio-Pastoral Formation Center. Currently located in Edin, Myitkyina, it has trained over 700 catechists.

More local priests ordained

The last three members of the original group of Columban missionaries left Myanmar in 1979, two years after the first Kachin priest, Fr Paul Zinghtung Grawng, was ordained Bishop of Myitkyina. The diocese then had only 10 Kachin priests. But the Columban legacy continued as churches and school buildings were named after St Columban and the number of local priests and religious steadily increased and efforts to evangelise the people continued. Eventually, a new Banmaw Diocese was created from Myitkyina Diocese.

The local church has produced three Kachin bishops, including the late Archbishop Grawng, about 80 priests, and hundreds of sisters and catechists, who serve about 116,000 Catholics in the Christian-majority Kachin state of 1.7 million people. More church-run boarding schools and hostels have sprung up in various parishes to offer education to children in remote areas.

In some areas where the government operates schools, the church runs boarding houses to provide accommodation and supplementary tuition for rural children.

Bishop Raymond Gam (Banmaw Diocese) stated that the local church took over the role of missionaries after the missionaries were forced to leave the country. “As a result, a vibrant and growing church has emerged, thanks especially to good priestly and religious vocations, dedicated catechists and baptised Catholics,” the prelate said.

“For the local church, it is easy to communicate with the faithful as we know the language and culture, and transportation is better than it was in the time of the missionaries.”

However, like other ethnic Christian-majority states, such as Shan, Kayah and Chin, the Kachin also suffer heavily from fighting between the military and rebels. “Sporadic fighting in the region restricts our movement, so we fail to respond to the needs of the people and to implement the development of young people,” Bishop Gam said.

Violence has engulfed the northern state since Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948. Since the military takeover in 1962, the Kachin people have been fighting for self-determination and autonomy in the Buddhist-majority nation.

Fighting has intensified since 2011, displacing more than 100,000 people, mostly Kachin Christians in Internally Displaced Persons' (IDP) camps in Kachin and Shan states. As peace remains elusive, the displacement continues to linger.

The return of the Columbans

Sr Susanna Choi was among the Columban sisters who returned to Kachin state in 2003 in Myitkyina after an absence of almost 40 years. Sr Choi, from Korea, founded Community Healthcare and Development (CHAD), which has reached out to people in remote villages to provide basic health care and training for community health workers.

Catholic, Peter Myo Aung, has worked at CHAD in Myitkyina for nine years. Due to repressive military rule and the forcible expulsion of missionaries, education and health services remain seriously neglected, underfunded and weak, he said. The services of CHAD are vital in remote areas, where they fill gaps in health sectors by responding to the urgent needs of the people. “The local team has moved on with its service and network by collaborating with other organizations. It’s a legacy of Sister Choi, who had already left the country,” Aung told UCA News. The Kachin man hailed the Columbans for “giving hope to the hopeless” – especially the young drug and alcohol addicts and the unemployed.

In 2015, following the return of minimal democracy in Myanmar, retired Bishop Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina and Bishop Raymond Gam of Banmaw invited the Columbans to resume their mission in the state. The news enthralled the faithful, who geared up for a warm welcome. In June 2015, a new Columban team composed of priests and lay missionaries arrived and resumed their mission, albeit on a smaller scale. The local church had already filled much of the vacuum left by the departure of the missionaries. A team of Columban lay missionaries had earlier worked in the Banmaw diocese from 2008 - 2011.

Today, a small group of foreign missionaries are active in Myitkyina, Banmaw and Mandalay. They hail from a range of countries including Ireland, the Philippines, Korea and Chile and are dedicated to watering the plant of faith just like their predecessors did. And enthusiastic local priests, like Fr Dang, continue the missionary spirit that foreign missionaries brought to the Kachin land so many years ago.

JOHN ZAW - UCA NEWS Union of Asian Catholic News, www.ucanews.com/news/kachin-catholics-make-their-mark-on-myanmars-strife-torn-frontier/95133

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