St. Bernard to welcome Karenni converts at Easter

| Melenie Soucheray | April 6, 2017 | 4 Comments

Father Saw Joseph Kureh, right, of St. Bernard in St. Paul, says a prayer for catechumens and candidates during the second scrutiny at St. Bernard March 26. The group includes, from left, Pu Reh, Daw Reh, Klar Reh, Hwsah Meh, Boe Meh and Ta Meh. The Karenni do not use last names, but rather a masculine (Reh) or feminine pronoun (Meh). Holding the book for Father Kureh is David Neira, RCIA director for St. Bernard. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

For more than two dozen Karenni immigrants, April 15 will be significant. During the 7 p.m. Easter Vigil Mass, St. Bernard on St. Paul’s near north side will welcome the teenage-to-octogenarian catechumens into full communion with the Catholic Church.

With translation help from Father Saw Joseph Kureh, St. Bernard’s parochial vicar and a Karenni, catechumen Nge Meh said as Easter approaches, the happier she becomes.

“I will be washed and become clean.

I am so happy for that,” said Nge Meh, amid a dozen of her Karenni neighbors at the Arkwright Apartments in St. Paul. “And, also I am a child of God, so now I am happy for baptism.”

David Neira, St. Bernard’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and internship program director, asked her, “If God is the king of the universe, what does that make you?”

Eyes around the room brightened at Nge Meh’s answer: “I am the daughter of the king; I am a princess.”

‘They heard the bell’

The Karenni refugees are originally from tribes and villages in an area that straddles the borders of Thailand and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in southeast Asia. When Burmese soldiers destroyed their homes and occupations, the Karenni — people who comprise individual ethnic groups that don’t necessarily share a common language or culture — fled to refugee camps in Thailand.

About seven years ago, after 10 years in the camps with no jobs or money and dwindling food supplies, the United Nations gave the Karenni the choice of staying or moving to Australia, Canada, Finland, Switzerland or the United States.

The Karen Organization of Minnesota estimates about 12,000 Karenni live in Minnesota. St. Paul has the largest and fastest growing Karenni population in the country.

Julia Marksue, a Karenni and St. Bernard’s refugee liaison assistant, estimates about 50 Karen families, from 600 to 750 people, live within and near the parish boundaries. All of this year’s catechumens previously practiced Buddhism or Animism.

St. Bernard’s iconic double bell towers had a role in drawing them to the parish. Father Ivan Sant, a native of Malta and St. Bernard’s pastor, explained: “[In] about 2009, the first Karenni refugees came to St. Bernard only by the fact that they heard the bell.”

The sound of the church bell is something the Karenni would have responded to, Marksue said. One family, in search of a church, wandered into a Mass at St. Bernard celebrated by a priest filling in for then-pastor Father Mike Anderson, now pastor of St. Joseph of the Lakes in Lino Lakes. After the priest informed Father Anderson that he had had visitors, the pastor reached out to the newcomers. The visitors said they would come to Mass more often, but they had no transportation. Father Anderson personally picked up the family — then, other families — to bring them to Mass.

“And, of course, the word spreads around,” Father Sant said.

Father Anderson rented a bus and began building a staff for this new ministry. He brought Marksue on board in 2011 to serve as a translator who could also help the Karenni find social services. She works with Hsawreh Sharpoehtay, the parish’s refugee liaison. A priest of the Diocese of Loikaw, Myanmar, Father Kureh began ministering at the parish four years ago.

“Having a priest who can speak their language, I think, gave a boost for [the Karenni] to be a strong community here,” Father Sant said. “When I arrived here in 2015, it was one of the biggest crowds we had in the parish.”

Father Kureh celebrates two Karenni Masses each month. Most Saturdays, the Karenni pray the rosary in their native language. During Lent, Father Kureh offers the Stations of the Cross in Karenni.

Neira was hired in 2015 and charged with creating an outreach program that brought him into people’s homes, which he visits every Tuesday. He described the Karenni as simple, shy and reserved. When parish leaders plan to visit their homes, they first ask permission. If they see strangers, Marksue said, they won’t open their doors.

However, with the parish “there’s a sense of familiarity. They know who we are,” Neira said. “Then, the strength is this tender closeness they try to have. That’s what makes it fruitful.”

Among the regular visitors to the Arkwright Apartments is Jacob Knepper, a junior at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul and an intern working with Neira and the team. He heard from fellow seminarians about members of the Karenni community and their faith formation at the parish.

“That resonated with me,” he said, adding that he wanted to learn from the Karenni to help him be an effective minister.

Forming a faith community

Last year, eight Karenni joined the Church. This year, classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults were packed. Parish leaders expect next year’s class to be large as well. To keep the new Catholics engaged, St. Bernard offers formation via the Neocatechumenal Way, a spiritual renewal movement dedicated to Christian formation.

“Our goal is to keep them growing in their faith,” Father Sant said. “We won’t baptize them and leave them out in the crowd. It doesn’t matter that this year we baptize 25 if we don’t offer anything after that.”

To buttress St. Bernard’s evangelization and formation efforts, Father Sant is working with St. Paul-based Catholic Community Foundation to explore the possibility of receiving help from parish communities. In the meantime, relationships with the Karenni need nurturing. Father Sant says it’s all about one-to-one relating and simply speaking about Jesus.

“This is how the seed of faith is planted in every human being,” he said.

“They tell me Jesus is here,” Neira said. “They ask, ‘How do I know he loves me in a personal way?’ I tell them, ‘I’m here;
I came here for you. I’m your brother, and I love you. I’m not the only one.’”

Knepper recalled a time when he arrived at a family’s home before Father Kureh was there to translate. Once Father Kureh arrived, the conversation progressed, and after a few moments, a Karenni woman told Knepper she wanted to sing for him.

“She sang this beautiful song. It was coming from her heart,” he said. “Father Kureh looked at me, and he said, ‘She’s saying, ‘I am very sad that I’m not like you. I’m very sad that I don’t know English, and I can’t speak or read or write.’”

Knepper continued, “In my own poverty and awkwardness, I don’t have much to give, except for my faith. [The moment] taught me how beautiful the Karenni are and how much they actually have.”


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