Burmese Catholics, some who had traveled across the country, gathered in Fort Wayne over the weekend for an annual conference meant to unite them.
We are scattered all over the United States, and we need an instrument to gather more together, and this is how we do it, said the Rev. Peter Swan, president of the National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics.
In a show of the group’s strength, Burmese families filled every pew of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Fort Wayne on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Mass. With the help of a Burmese translator, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese delivered a homily to the crowd while restless children paced the aisles and tried to dip their hands into the holy water of the baptismal font.
Rhoades said he first met Burmese Catholics as bishop in Harrisburg, Pa.
They had a special place in my heart in Harrisburg, and I was so happy when I moved here to Indiana to find an even larger Burmese Catholic community, he said.
The bishop touched on the challenges many in attendance faced as immigrants, such as adapting to a new culture, learning English, and finding homes and jobs.
You may have felt like strangers in a foreign land, he said. I hope that you have felt at home in the Catholic church here. The Catholic church is your spiritual home.
Mary Oo, 20, came to the Mass with her parents and siblings. Her family had driven from their home in Hartford, Conn., so they could attend the conference.
It’s worth it to come so to see everyone, she said of the 750-mile trek.
For Oo, the conference is a way for Burmese Catholics in different cities to realize that they are one community.
When we are here, like, together, I feel like we are one big family. So I feel really happy, she said.
Swan, who serves as a church deacon in Jonesboro, Ga., said more than 1,000 people took part in the three-day conference, which ended Sunday. Conference activities included spiritual talks, an appearance from Mayor Tom Henry, and volleyball and soccer games for young people.
The conference, now in its fourth year, was first held in Fort Wayne, and for the past two years, Harrisburg had been the host city, Swan said.
Thousands of Burmese refugees live in Fort Wayne, constituting one of the nation’s largest enclaves. It’s difficult to say how many Burmese-Americans are Catholic, but Swan estimates that 1 percent of the population in Myanmar, also known as Burma, belongs to the church.
Missionaries first brought Catholicism to Burma, and the faith flourished until 1962, when a new government booted missionaries from the country, Swan said.
After that, Catholicism in Burma dwindled a little bit, but there was enough Burmese clergy to carry the load, he said.
These days, Catholics in large cities like Yangon and Mandalay are left alone to practice their religion, but the situation is more complicated in the countryside.
If you are in a remote area, where the soldiers still have control, they like to control everything, Swan said. There were incidents where crosses were burned. Nuns were assaulted. Priests were assaulted.
That sort of harassment was far in the background Sunday when the Archbishop of Yangon, Charles Bo, presented Rhoades with a rosary and other gifts during Mass.
When the service ended, the enthusiastic crowd poured out of the cathedral to take photos with the two church leaders.