evangelization

Building Bridges in Wausau

Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish

Excitement filled the Church as people from several states gathered to witness the proclamation establishing a new parish for the Diocese of La Crosse – Mary, Mother of Good Help. Bishop William Patrick Callahan celebrated Mass with the new parish and installed its first pastor, Father Alan Burkhardt.

What some thought impossible became real as the hopes and dreams of a people who lost their homeland took root. Emigrating from Laos, the Hmong community has steadily grown in the Wausau area since the end of the Vietnam War. Through the numerous hardships and challenges of navigating a new land, language and culture, many in the Hmong community have come to find and embrace the Catholic Faith. Father Al, along with the people of Mary, Mother of Good Help, hope their new parish will stoke the flame of Faith within the greater Hmong community.

Parishioners believe that dedicating a priest and space to their community is a huge step forward. Father Al describes the situation, “We are working with a group of people with little-to-no Christian background. What really spurs the Hmong people on is a true desire to learn the Faith. They only recently have been introduced to Catholicism, and thus some of the things we take for granted in the midst of our Western culture are not readily known. So, without that Christian background, their questions are very different than most. Their situation involves the need to work through such fundamental issues as: “Well, here’s how we did things”; “What is the meaning of this Catholic practice”?; to “What is the difference between culture and religion”?

Parishioner Va Thao played an instrumental role in bringing Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish to where it is today. “I am so excited,” Va explains. “Not only do we have a priest that will be there with us, but we will have a priest that will have time to help us through this slow process. We are unique in a way because we don’t come from a Christian background or knowing of Jesus.”

With much to reconcile between Christian belief and their more eastern beliefs, Va hopes that having a full-time priest will allow that to happen. Va also hopes that this parish will in some way open up other cultures to the Catholic Faith. Va continues, “We offer the community this extra insight into Catholicism. We came from a culture where there was no Christianity at all, so we could be that stepping stone allowing for other cultures to realize that they can be Christian too.” Va anticipates that their new parish community can help open a door and help other cultures understand that you don’t have to be of “European” decent to be Christian.

Bishop William Patrick Callahan installs Father Alan Burkhardt as pastor of Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish in Wausau.

Until the new parish was formed, Father Al was pastor of St. Anne Parish in Wausau, where most of the Hmong community would attend Mass. Through this experience, Father Al naturally became an instrumental part of the conversation leading to where they are today. Father Al describes the early stages of what is now Mary, Mother of Good Help. “We had several conversations regarding the needs of the [Hmong] community: What they were hoping for and how they saw themselves. Out of those conversations came the bishop’s question: “Should you be your own parish to address these needs; to have a full-time pastor to be able to discuss and look at some of these things; and better understand what it means to be Catholic – to really have the time and energy for that?”

Following that conversation, through much prayer and reflection, the community decided to send a letter to Bishop Callahan expressing their desire to move forward in establishing a new parish.

“This new parish offers them a place to come and learn about the possibilities and be extended an invitation to embrace this Faith.”

Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish represents an opportunity for the Hmong community to deepen their Faith, but also for the broader Catholic community to think anew about their own Faith and what active parish life can bring to a community of people.

Youths of the parish visit with Father Peter Ly of Minneapolis, the only Hmong priest in the United States.

“The parish is really about creating a number of bridges,” Father Al explains. “Bridges need to be built between those who are still immigrating and who desire to be Catholic. How do we create a process to assist them? Bridging the young people and the elders who have two different life experiences. The opportunity exists to bridge these experiences; to be comfortable with understanding the impact of these experiences, and to be able to express in a manner that it becomes a shared experience.”

Through this endeavor, Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish reminds us of the benefits of parish life being a place where people from all different walks of life, generations and upbringings can come together through a communal effort to draw closer to Jesus and learn the Catholic Faith.

This new parish also offers a precious opportunity for evangelization. Father Al remarks, “There is a tremendous amount of excitement about Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish which gives an opportunity to reach out and evangelize. As a new parish, they have the opportunity to invite other people to learn about Jesus and the Catholic Faith.”

Father Al continues, “With approximately 7,000 Hmong in Wausau, this new parish has the ability to grow. The present 72 families are a small segment of that overall population.” Father Al continues, “Hopefully that excitement will spur others to come and see, experience and perhaps make a decision that the love of God is something they are looking for in their life. I think Catholicism has a great deal to offer the community. This new parish offers them a place to come and learn about the possibilities and be extended an invitation to embrace this Faith. With this new parish, there is a visible presence in the community for people who are interested in knowing what it means to be Catholic.”

The Hmong community in Wausau is excited and committed to building this new parish. Father Al concludes, “Parishes serve different people and needs for a lot of different reasons. But we all come together to try to share certain commonalities in our love for Jesus Christ and the desire to follow Him more closely: The call to prayer, the call to justice, the call to supporting the needs of the Church collectively. This isn’t about Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish trying to separate from that. The parish is forming this perspective through a unique story and culture.”

Mary, Mother of Good Help, with the support of the diocese, is embarking joyfully upon this new journey! Your prayers in support of our newest parish are most appreciated! May God bless the Hmong as they deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church for generations into the future.

Story and Photography by Ben Williams

 

“ The call to prayer, the call to justice, the call to supporting the needs of the Church collectively. This isn’t about Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish trying to separate from that. The parish is forming this perspective through a unique story and culture. ”
— FATHER ALAN BURKHARDT

Women of Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish and Ann Lankford, Hmong ministry coordinator for the Diocese of La Crosse.

 

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