Wisconsin diocese to launch new parish for Hmong Catholics

Church pews Credit Goran Bogicevic Shutterstock CNA Church pews. | Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock.

A special quasi-parish for Catholics of Hmong background will be established in the Wisconsin Diocese of La Crosse, its local bishop announced.

"It's with great hope and joy that I welcome our newest parish, whose mission is to bring the Catholic tradition to the Hmong community," Bishop William Patrick Callahan said May 6. "Today we are proud to continue in our history of reaching out to peoples who have not encountered Jesus and the gospels."

A quasi-parish is the equivalent of a parish under canon law, with some exceptions. It can later become a parish at the discretion of the local bishop.

Bishop Callahan named Father Alan T. Burkhardt as the quasi-parish's first pastor. He currently pastors St. Anne Parish in Wausau. That parish currently hosts a bilingual Hmong Mass on Sunday afternoons.

Hmong refugees began to arrive in the La Crosse area after the Vietnam War and the civil war in the southeast Asia country of Laos, where they are an ethnic minority. There are over 7,000 people with Hmong heritage in the Wausau area, and its Hmong Catholic community is the second-largest in the U.S. There are significant Hmong populations in La Crosse and Eau Claire as well.

The initial work to launch the quasi-parish, including organizational and civil requirements and selection of a worship space, is expected to finish by the end of 2018. According to the bishop's decree, the quasi-parish's name will be Mary, Mother of Good Help.

"The members of the Hmong community desire to know their faith and have asked me to consider the possibility of pursuing this dialogue as a new parish," Bishop Callahan said in a May 6 letter to the Catholics of the diocese and of the Wausau deanery.

"I offer my fervent prayers and very warm wishes for all who are directly involved in this great missionary event," he said.

"With great hope in Jesus, this new parish will provide new opportunities for the Hmong community to grow," he added, invoking the diocese's tradition of serving Irish, German, Polish and French immigrants.

Bishop Callahan said the needs of the diocese's Hmong community have been a particular point of reflection for him in the last year.

The diocese has recognized a desire for integration between the Hmong community and the native population, but different cultures and languages are "real barriers" which require "special attention to overcome."

While Catholic missionaries worked among the Hmong for decades before they arrived in the U.S., the community's history in refugee camps and during relocation to the U.S., among other factors, have meant Hmong people have had limited time to establish "a common vocabulary and understanding of basic Catholic beliefs," the bishop said.

"With this in mind, the ministry to the Hmong community requires adjustments from us to assist in their assimilation and knowledge that will provide them an ability to feel comfortable within Catholic tradition," said Bishop Callahan.

"The Hmong community is new to Christianity," he continued. "Their traditional spirituality is a form of animism. Since coming to our diocese, a significant number of Hmong have embraced the Catholic faith. Their conversion from animism to Catholicism requires special attention, so that the traditions of animism are not erroneously carried over into Catholic practices."

"Since animism and Hmong culture are intimately integrated, this process of sorting possible errors is challenging," said the bishop.

Creating a parish with a pastor for the Hmong community may help this dialogue evolve and help the community deepen their understanding of Catholicism, he said.

Bishop Callahan cited the 1987 letter from La Crosse's then-Bishop John Paul, "On the Christian Welcome of the Hmong Population Among the Faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse." Bishop Paul considered the history of the Hmong people and noted that the Hmong had allied with the U.S. during the Vietnam War. He asked Catholics to help the refugees meet their needs.

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"The Diocese of La Crosse is honored to be involved in this missionary work by which we 'welcome the Stranger' by bringing our Catholic tradition and faith to the Hmong people who have made our diocese their home," Bishop Callahan said.

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