NEP Day 5: A Communion of Believers

This article was posted on: April 29, 2024

Two diverse parishes separated by a 35-mile stretch of Hwy. 29 share a common goal: to lead parishioners closer to the Eucharist and Jesus Christ. This time, however, the Eucharist is coming to them.

Hispanic and Hmong parishes highlight Day 5 of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage

Two diverse parishes separated by a 35-mile stretch of Hwy. 29 share a common goal: to lead parishioners closer to the Eucharist and Jesus Christ. This time, however, the Eucharist is coming to them.

St. Bernard Church in Abbotsford and Mary, Mother of Good Help Church in Wausau are two of the four stops on the fifth day of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s journey through the Diocese of La Crosse. Both parishes are as unique as they are similar. St. Bernard’s is the oldest Hispanic community in the diocese, and its community of Abbotsford is 70% Hispanic. Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish is the only Hmong parish in the entire United States.

At St. Bernard’s, love of the Eucharist is nothing new for Father Tim Oudenhoven’s parish, which consists of 500 Hispanic and 200 English-speaking families. “We hold a Corpus Christi procession every year, which is one of the longest in the diocese,” said Father Oudenhoven. “We walk between my two churches in Abbotsford and Dorchester, covering a distance of five and a half miles. Last year, we had 450 people participating in the procession.”

Serving the Community 

Now, the parish community is excited to welcome in pilgrims from throughout the diocese and beyond to showcase its deep faith and care for the less fortunate. “Pope Francis said the church is a field hospital. We really feel that in Abbotsford,” Father Oudenhoven said. The parish is dedicated to helping those in need and makes no apologies for its mission. Its focus and actions leave no room for doubt. Visitors can see two tons of food stored by the elevator when entering the church. The parish used to have two confessional rooms, but now only one is available because the other is filled with 1,400 pounds of cereal. Every week, the church distributes 17,000 pounds of food to more than 300 families in need through its food pantry. In addition, the church also provides clothing, which is displayed on 15 tables in the basement.

The word “church” can mean different things to different people. Whether it is the four walls and roof where Mass is celebrated or a missionary-style church that serves the community, Catholics in Abbotsford have embraced both. Father Oudenhoven said it’s not uncommon for people to travel 40 to 50 minutes each way to attend Mass every week, as it is the northernmost Spanish Mass in Wisconsin.

“It’s really amazing what living our Catholic mission for the community does for our parishioners in the way we worship,” Father Oudenhoven explained. “When they see the positive impact of our efforts and they contribute to it, a real sense of honor emerges in being part of something larger than ourselves. Being part of a community that cares for each other and provides support through various programs, such as food and clothing, is truly special.”

The Pilgrimage Arrives

Pilgrims will begin the fifth day of the journey at 9 a.m., leaving St. Mary Church in Colby and walking 4.3 miles to St. Bernard Church. Upon arrival, the pilgrims will participate in a double holy hour, available in English and Spanish. Father Oudenhoven described the holy hours as “more of a vocal one and more of a meditative one.” Priests will also be available for confession. There will also be lunch to nourish the hungry pilgrims before they continue their journey. We are roasting a pig for lunch, and it will be a celebration of our Catholicism and that we are one family and one community,” Father Oudenhoven said. From there, the pilgrimage will travel to Mary, Mother of Good Help Church in Wausau.

Father Al Burkhardt, the pastor of Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish, is eagerly looking forward to welcoming Catholics from outside Wausau. The parish was formed six years ago, and Father Burkhardt sees this as an opportunity for pilgrims to discover the uniqueness of the parish. He explains that it’s a moment for them to connect with something they have no knowledge about and an opportunity to pray with this group, which creates a sense of being connected by faith. Although the language might be different, the commonality of the Eucharist and the belief in the Real Presence provide an opportunity to pray and be inspired by being in the presence, making it a wonderful opportunity for their parish to be a part of the event as a unique parish in the United States.

A Place to Call Home 

The Hmong Catholic community in Wausau currently holds Mass in a temporary location while members fundraise for a parish building of their own. Father Burkhardt explained how important it is for the 86 families of the parish to have their own space to learn and grow with others who share a similar background.

“That’s very significant for two reasons. Firstly, in terms of the Hmong culture, it’s very relational. So, that sense of relationship and gathering and being together is very important,” Father Burkhardt said. “Secondly, they want a place to call home. The Hmong don’t really have their own country, so that sense of having something to call home and be able to nurture their relationships and grow in their faith is of great significance for the Hmong community.”

Now, it will be the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, bringing together different cultures. Father
Burkhardt explains it as building a relationship with the broader church and an opportunity for his parishioners to share who they are and for pilgrims to grow in understanding of the vastness of the Catholic Church, all united by the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. “I believe that having a relationship with the broader church and the opportunity to share our story is important,” he said. “Not everyone gets this chance, so receiving this invitation to share our culture is a wonderful gift for both sides.”

Feet, Souls and Faith 

When the pilgrims arrive at Mary, Mother of Good Help Church in Wausau, they will be greeted with a holy hour that includes adoration, prayer and a blessing. Following that, there will be food and fellowship, allowing pilgrims even more opportunities to learn about Hmong culture. Father Burkhardt expressed the importance for Hmong Americans of sharing food and gathering with others. From Mary, Mother of Good Help Church, pilgrims will travel through Wausau to Holy Name Church for an event at 6 p.m. 

Both Father Oudenhoven and Father Burkhardt agree this movement of feet and souls throughout the state and beyond will be special for their unique parishes.

“It’s allowing us to be part of this national movement. It’s allowing us to welcome Christ into our town and ask for this blessing and hope. It’s just a time for us to be part of this movement in the United States and for us to once again, welcome Christ and walk with Him,” Father Oudenhoven shared.

“It’s an opportunity for people to see their faith.” Father Burkhardt added. “So, whatever sense people arrive with, my prayer is that the pilgrimage will open their hearts and minds to that broader sense of church, that sense of supporting people who seek to find their home.”

Story by Clint Berge
Published in the May/June 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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