Catholic Hmong mark 20 years at parish with Easter celebration

| April 7, 2015 | 0 Comments
Choua Yang receives Communion from Bishop Andrew Cozzens during Easter Sunday Mass April 5 at St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul. The Mass also featured a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Hmong presence at St. Vincent, which prompted Yang and others to come dressed in traditional Hmong attire. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Choua Yang receives Communion from Bishop Andrew Cozzens during Easter Sunday Mass April 5 at St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul. The Mass also featured a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Hmong presence at St. Vincent, which prompted Yang and others to come dressed in traditional Hmong attire. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Story cloths, for Hmong families, are hand-sewn histories.

Colorful threads intricately crafted into tapestries tell of episodes in the lives of mountain village families, how they lived, often how they survived.

Valued as art, story cloths are among the displays in the current exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, “We Are Hmong Minnesota.”

“Our house doesn’t have one,” Hillary Lor says matter-of-factly.

“Our house has a picture of Jesus and a crucifix.”

Hmong Catholics such as the Lor family are “a minority among minorities,” said Deacon Nao Kao Yang, who serves the Hmong Catholics who worship at St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul. Of the estimated 100,000 Hmong who now live in Minnesota, some have retained animist beliefs, often connected to the afterlife of ancestors. Others are Christian, but not Catholic.

And yet, Hmong Catholics in Minnesota are the envy of those who have resettled in other parts of the United States, Deacon Yang said, because they have a church community to call home, St. Vincent de Paul, a mile or so northwest of the State Capitol in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.

“St. Vincent de Paul is an icon for Hmong Catholics throughout the country,” he said. “It’s a symbol of hope.”

Bishop Andrew Cozzens presided at Mass Easter Sunday at St. Vincent to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Hmong Catholic ministry there.

The festivities continued after Mass with food and a program.

Hmong Catholics come to St. Vincent de Paul to worship from as far as Rogers, St. Michael and western Wisconsin, Deacon Yang said.

The Hmong began to arrive in the Twin Cities after the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975. Hmong had fought on the side of U.S. military in what has become known as the “Secret War” in Indochina, and they came to the United States with refugee status.

Deacon Yang left Laos in 1976. He became Catholic in 1986 and was ordained to the permanent diaconate in 1997.

Over the past 40 years this one-time refugee community has acculturated. Many Hmong who live in Minnesota are bilingual and speak English with no traceable accent.

“We can worship anywhere,” Deacon Yang said, “but at other parishes we might be lost in the crowd. When you are here you feel you have an identity. [Hmong Catholics] come here because they feel more at home.

“I think when you participate in Mass in your own language you tend to feel closer to God,” he added.

Initially the small Hmong Catholic community worshipped at St. Mary in St. Paul and at St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Minneapolis, but St. Vincent de Paul became a place for Hmong Catholics to call home in 1994.

In 2012, the parish merged with the Cathedral of St. Paul, but continues to hold a 9 a.m. Mass each week as a hub for Twin Cities-area Hmong Catholics.

Sunday Mass at St. Vincent de Paul accommodates the bilingual nature of the people in the pew.

Priests from the cathedral and the seminaries preside, leading prayer in English. A lector proclaims the readings in Hmong and Deacon Yang reads the Gospel and preaches in Hmong. Familiar English-language hymns are translated into Hmong or will alternate verses in English and Hmong.

Responses during the Mass are just as loud in English as they are in Hmong.

When Deacon Yang delivers the announcements at the close of the liturgy, he mostly speaks in Hmong, but repeats the message in English when it’s geared for younger parishioners, such as information about first communion or confirmation classes.

And, while Hmong Catholics are a minority among minorities, their 20-year-old St. Vincent de Paul community welcomes anyone interested in the faith, Deacon Yang said.

“We want St. Vincent de Paul to be a place of hope and love for others who want to know Jesus,” he said.

Hmong Catholics talk about their faith as they stroll through their history

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