The Only Hmong Catholic Parish in the U.S.

This article was posted on: April 26, 2024

The Diocese of La Crosse is unique among all other dioceses in the United States having created a Hmong Catholic parish in Wausau.

Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish consistently growing

The Diocese of La Crosse is unique among all other dioceses in the United States having created a Hmong Catholic parish in Wausau. The founding of a parish to serve the specific needs of the Hmong community unfolded as Bishop William Patrick Callahan met with a group of Hmong leaders and their pastor, Father Al Burkhardt. The bishop, along with the deans, discerned that it was the opportune time to establish such a parish.

A bit of history

When the Hmong people were forced to leave Laos and Thailand in 1976, Catholics in the Diocese of La Crosse began welcoming them. “The Hmong were faithful and strong allies of the United States during the Vietnam War. Many rescued American soldiers injured because their airplanes or helicopters had been shot down; many gave their lives while assisting our armed forces. Large numbers of Hmong had to flee Laos because they shared with us a strong opposition to a government rooted in atheistic communism.  With the fall of Saigon in 1975, those who were our allies had to flee precisely because they had been our allies.” (On the Christian Welcome of the Hmong Population, Bishop John Paul, 1987)

Tens of thousands of Hmong men, women and children hid in the dense jungles of Laos for up to two years, surviving on bananas and leaves. Families crossed the treacherous Mekong River into Thailand to escape Laos and found shelter in refugee camps. The Hmong endured harsh conditions in these overcrowded and confining camps.

In response to pleas for help from Thailand regarding the plight of the Hmong people, 40 nations welcomed the Hmong. In the United States, the majority of Hmong were resettled in California, Wisconsin and Minnesota. To support Hmong families, the Catholic Church established a sponsorship program where Catholic families sponsored Hmong families.

Many Hmong in Laos and Thailand were evangelized and received the sacraments of initiation. Upon arriving in the diocese, the Hmong community desired a place to grow in their understanding of the Faith. Their traditional spirituality is characterized as Animism, which is a worship of ancestors whose spirits they believe have not reincarnated or reside in other things. These spirits bother family and friends, who then seek to appease the ancestors through sacrifices of money and animals. This process instills fear, even illness, about what these spirits may do or not do, leaving people with uncertainty and a lack of hope.

Christianity and Animism are two belief systems that are vastly different from each other. In order to become a Christian, a Hmong person needs to let go of the practice of ancestor worship and instead accept Jesus Christ as their savior. This involves developing a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus, who offers unconditional love and forgiveness of sins. As a result, believers are freed from the influence of these spirits.

Even though Hmong Catholics are relatively new to the Faith, they are fully committed to growing in their understanding and practice. The people experience God through their prayers being answered and the peace that only Jesus can provide. The Hmong embrace the reality of Catholicism through baptism and ongoing formation, strengthening their Christian life.

A Hmong Parish is needed

The Hmong Catholic community in Wausau was initially served well at St. Anne Parish, but found it difficult to thrive within a large and active parish. Father Steve Brice and Father Al Burkhardt, the previous and current pastors, respectively, were so busy serving both communities that it became essential to establish a new parish with a pastor devoted solely to the unique needs of the Hmong community. The conversion of Hmong people from Animism to Catholicism requires a shift in mindset from worshipping ancestors to worshipping God. Traditional practices are examined closely to ensure that Animist traditions are not mistakenly carried over into their Catholic practices. As a result, Mary, Mother of Good Help was established in 2018.

It is necessary to form well-trained and properly formed Catholic leaders who can assist the pastor with various aspects of parish life. Since 2015, 16 Hmong adults have completed the two-year Diocesan Lay Formation Institute where they received excellent Catholic formation. These parishioners, including four part-time staff members, have become the backbone of their parish leadership. 

The leadership of educated and formed Catholics work closely with Father Burkhardt, who spends many hours each week with this group. He has a heart for listening carefully to the Hmong in order to understand their culture and worldview. This team translated devotional booklets, such as the Holy Rosary, the Chaplet of St. Michael and Divine Mercy, and the Stations of the Cross. Currently, this team is publishing a more complete Lectionary with the proper Hmong wording of Sunday Mass readings. This crafting of the Hmong language takes years of ongoing dialogue and verification to ensure that the wording choice is simple and understandable and leads people to Christ and the truth of Catholic teaching.

The roles of these leaders include teaching in Faith Formation, facilitating Bible studies, leading a choir, organizing adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, etc. During COVID, leaders began praying the rosary together daily through a conference call. This same practice continues, with upward of 40 phone participants, gathered with their families to pray together.

Plans for Building a Parish

Since 2018, Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish has been renting space for the church and offices. The current space does not provide the needed facilities for funerals, weddings and other celebrations, or the growing number of study groups. The authenticity of the Hmong in their love for God and their vibrancy in wanting to spread the Good News to more than 7,000 Hmong residing in the Wausau area led to praying about building a new church and community center. Their long-time dream is coming true with the land purchased four years ago.

The Capital Building Campaign aims to raise $3.5 million, and so far, $1 million has been collected. People have been working in the ginseng fields as needed and contributing wages as a legacy for their children, much like our early immigrants. Some changes have been made to the original plan to make the project more affordable.

The church is designed to be a Hmong Catholic Church, with stained glass windows depicting the people’s faith stories. One of the planned windows is dedicated to the 17 martyrs of Laos, who were 12 Catholic priests and professed religious, as well as five lay people. These individuals were killed in Laos between 1954 and 1970 due to anti-religious persecution under a Buddhist-communist political movement.

One of these martyrs was a 19-year-old catechist, Paul Thoj Xyooj, who was born in Laos in 1941 and served as a Hmong missionary. Paul is the first Hmong martyr, killed for his faith in 1960. The Hmong felt a deep connection to him while also then experiencing the suppression of their new-found Catholic Faith by the communists.

National Eucharistic Pilgrimage to Visit MMOGH

In May 2024, the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage begins with four separate processions making their way across the United States. The four routes include a group of 14 perpetual pilgrims including priest chaplains who will carry the holy Eucharist.

The Marian Route Procession will start at Lake Itasca, located in north-central Minnesota.  It will then pass through Wisconsin before making its way through the Diocese of La Crosse, with various stops scheduled from June 7 to June 12. Mary, Mother of Good Help, being the only Hmong Catholic parish in the United States, is a featured stop for the National Procession and will host a Holy Hour.

Hmong Catholics are a great blessing in our communities. They are beautiful witnesses, through their sincerity, authenticity and their commitment to Jesus Christ and His Church. Pray for the parish as they embark upon the building of the new church.

Contribute to the building fund of Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish here.

Story by Ann Lankford, Director of the Office for Catechesis and Evangelization & Father Alan Burkhardt, Pastor of Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish in Wausau.

Published in the May/June 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine.

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