By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — For Jones Mang, the 14th anniversary celebration of the Myanmar Catholic community being at Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green was “very overwhelming, but not in a bad way — in a good way.”
Mang and his family came to the United States in 2011 and were quickly welcomed by the parishioners at Holy Spirit who were eager to help the newly resettled Myanmar refugees feel at home.
He said he “didn’t expect this much of a community to grow up, and being welcomed by different kinds of cultures.”
The celebration was held June 18 and began as a long line of men, women and children — dressed in the traditional clothing of different Myanmar tribes — stood along Holy Spirit Church’s vast parking lot to welcome the arrival of Bishop William F. Medley of Owensboro.
The parishioners sang songs and played music as Bishop Medley walked along the line to greet them; children handed him bouquets of flowers. After the bishop had reached the end of the receiving line, he processed into the church to begin Mass.
According to Father Martin Ma Na Ling, parochial vicar of Holy Spirit, the Myanmar community at the parish has grown from just three or four families to approximately 180 families in the past 14 years.
That day, a total of 682 people filled the church for the liturgy, which was celebrated in Burmese dialects and in English.
“What a joy to come and see this church so filled with a spirit of love, and a spirit of service, and a spirit of hope and courage that brings you here today,” said Bishop Medley in his opening remarks at the beginning of Mass.
According to the Kentucky Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities of Louisville, between the years 2017 and 2021 a total of 442 individuals from Myanmar were resettled in Bowling Green.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has experienced devastating sociopolitical turmoil for decades as various forces fight for control of the Southeast Asian country. Myanmar citizens have left their homeland en masse, often ending up in refugee camps in nearby Malaysia and Thailand. A military coup in 2021 worsened the situation, leading more nationals to leave the country.
An April 29, 2021, fact sheet from the Pew Research Center states that the population of people from Myanmar living in the U.S. numbered 189,000 in 2019.
In his homily, Bishop Medley said he has served the Diocese of Owensboro for 13 years, “so I arrived shortly after some of you.”
He gave the homily in English, and it was translated into Burmese in real time by Father Ma Na Ling, who stood beside him at the ambo.
“You, as a community, have made great contributions to our local church in our community — not the least of which is Father Martin and Father Stephen being ordained here,” said Bishop Medley.
He spoke in reference to the 2020 ordination of Father Stephen Van Lal Than and the 2022 ordination of Father Ma Na Ling, respectively the first and second Myanmar-born priests to ever be ordained in the United States.
Bishop Medley offered a word of gratitude for Father Steve Hohman, who, while serving at Holy Spirit 14 years ago, recognized the local Myanmar community that had resettled in Bowling Green through the International Center of Kentucky.
Father Hohman’s efforts to welcome Myanmar refugees at Holy Spirit helped launch the vibrant community now integral to the parish’s identity.
The bishop said that over the years, several other priests have continued to shepherd the Myanmar community, such as Father Timothy Ling, who served in Bowling Green for many years; and Father John Paul Mang, who currently serves the growing Myanmar community at St. Pius X Parish in Owensboro.
At the end of the liturgy, Burmese youth gave Bishop Medley a letter of gratitude for his support as they have made their new home in Kentucky. Parishioner Ben Ghung Awm then presented the bishop and the concelebrating priests with gifts — reconciliation stoles handmade by a parishioner.
After Mass, all gathered in the parish hall for a meal and to watch performances of traditional songs and dances.
Ahna Dim, a young adult parishioner of Holy Spirit, said the celebration that day was “exciting” and that “time really flew — it seemed like only a few years ago that we were celebrating five years here.”
The Myanmar Catholic community continues to face the challenge of how to “adapt to the culture outside and also maintain our culture and cultural ways to pray, because it’s very different from the Western way to pray,” she told The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.
She added that having a community of support for her culture at Holy Spirit, however, “gives me a sense that I shouldn’t be afraid to pray in my own dialect,” which is Zo.
Jones Mang said the community’s ability to “be able to sing, pray and worship in our own languages is thanks to Bishop Medley,” who he said has strongly supported the Mass being celebrated in Burmese dialects.
He is also thankful for “our priests at Holy Spirit — they have always wanted the best for us and to do the best for us that they can,” as well as for non-Burmese parishioners who help newly-arrived refugees with transportation to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store.
In the coming years, Jones Mang looks forward to seeing even more “growth in the Burmese community and the youth becoming more active” in the church.
“We are very blessed to be a part of this community where everyone welcomes us,” he said.