Father Mike Anderson waited patiently on the front steps of St. Bernard in St. Paul last Sunday morning, his purple vestments cloaking him from the November chill. Clanging church bells heralded the 10:30 Mass, but only a smattering of parishioners prayed silently in the pews.
Minutes later, a yellow school bus pulled up to the curb, then another one behind it. The priest’s face lit up as he greeted dozens of people pouring off the buses into the church.
About 400 Myanmar refugees have found a spiritual home at St. Bernard in recent months. For Father Anderson, the refugees’ arrival has been nothing short of a miracle, he said.
“I think it’s the best thing that could have happened to us,” Father Anderson told The Catholic Spirit. “For 15 years, we’ve watched our parish rolls drop from 1,000 families to less than 400 families.
. . . [The refugees] are a sign of new life.”
Come one, come all
It all started a little over a year ago when one Catholic family from the Myanmar state of Karenni heard church bells ringing in the distance. The family members followed the sound to St. Bernard, where they began attending Mass regularly.
One day, the couple invited Father Anderson to visit them in their home. “We had a very silent visit with each other because I didn’t know their language and they didn’t know mine,” Father Anderson said. “But somehow it began a bond.”
As the seasons changed, the couple approached Father Anderson once again to ask him if he would like for them to continue going to Mass at St. Bernard during the winter. When Father Anderson replied he would, the couple said they would need help with transportation.
Without hesitation, Father Anderson offered to drive the grateful couple to church in his Ford Taurus. Soon he began picking up other Myanmar refugees along the way.
“Every Sunday they’d lead me to another person and another person, and pretty soon I brought like eight families to church one Sunday. They were sitting on each others’ laps,” Father Anderson said with a laugh.
At a parishioner’s suggestion, Father Anderson decided to contract with a bus company to transport people to church. “I didn’t know how many people would come,” Father Anderson said, “but within two weeks we had 125 Karenni joining us every Sunday for Mass.”
Since then, the refugee population at the parish has continued to grow. As word spread that St. Bernard was welcoming the Karenni, refugees from Karen, another Myanmar state with its own language and cultural identity, also began attending Mass there.
Some families have come from as far away as Texas to join what they heard was a Catholic church that would welcome them, Father Anderson said.
One of the biggest challenges has been language. Most of the refugees have only recently arrived in the United States and are just beginning to learn English. Several members of the Karenni and Karen communities serve as interpreters to help with sacramental preparation and other needs.
Then there are challenges that naturally arise from blending different cultures. While most long-time parishioners have welcomed the newcomers with open arms, a few have struggled, Father Anderson said.
To help with the transition, Father Anderson said, “we’re doing different things to try to keep the communities mixing with each other.”
Separate Karenni and Karen choirs perform at Mass every Sunday, and some refugees have become altar servers. The parish also has hosted dinners to bring the various communities together outside of Mass.
When some long-time parishioners witnessed Karen and Karenni youth serving at the dinners, “it really softened a lot of attitudes,” Father Anderson said.
In addition, Father Anderson frequently writes bulletin articles about the refugees and integrates them into his homilies to give people a better understanding of the difficulties they have faced.
Tens of thousands of people have fled Myanmar, also known as Burma, since the 1980s because of religious and ethnic persecution by the country’s military junta against various ethnic minorities, including the Karen and Karenni people.
Most have lived in refugee camps across the border in Thailand, some for more than two decades, before making their way to the United States and other countries. The U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services has resettled many of them.
“You hear horror stories,” Father Anderson said. “Since 1995, the Burmese government has changed its policies toward the ethnics not only to suppress their culture, but now to oppress them. They’ve been burning down villages, they set up land mines everywhere so people get blown up, . . . they shoot people point blank with no reason.
“Now [the refugees] are coming here, and they need our help,” he added.
They arrive in the United States with few belongings. Most are not prepared for a harsh Minnesota winter.
“They come to church in their flipflops, and they wear wind breakers in the winter because they don’t have any winter coats,” Father Anderson said.
When Father Anderson mentioned the refugees’ need for winter clothing to Father Tom Walker, pastor at St. Ambrose in Woodbury, Father Walker suggested they do a pulpit exchange one Sunday and clothing drive at St. Ambrose.
So far, St. Ambrose parishioners have collected around 175 coats, plus boots, mittens, hats and other articles of clothing, which they delivered to St. Bernard in a Chevy Suburban with a horse trailer attached.
Other parishes also have donated clothing for the refugees, Father Anderson said. “I think we’re going to be able to give winter clothing to everybody in the community.”
To further help meet the refugees’ needs, St. Bernard has created a full-time refugee liaison position. Tom Flood, former dean of students at St. Bernard High School, which closed in the spring, began his new job at the parish Sept. 1. He assists at parent-teacher conferences with an interpreter, helps the refugees get established with a doctor, walks them through the process of getting their green cards, helps them find employment, and provides a number of other services.
“I’m basically helping them get acclimated to life in Minnesota and life in the United States,” he said.
Home at last
Karenni Shaw Reh, 24, joined St. Bernard a year ago after he moved to St. Paul from Missouri. Before that, he spent 14 years of his life at a camp in Thailand.
As a child, Reh remembers hiding in the jungle to escape from Burmese soldiers when they came to his village. Reh left his family at the age of 9 to live in the refugee camp because his parents could no longer afford to send him to school, he said.
“Life in the refugee camp was very hard,” he said. “It’s like a bird in a cage.”
The refugees were not allowed to leave the camp and had to rely on meager food rations from the U.N. to survive.
Now reunited with members of his family in St. Paul, Reh said St. Bernard has helped him a lot.
“St. Bernard not only helps our people attend Sunday services, but it also helps us with social services,” he said. “It is really good for the Karenni people. They have really welcomed us.”