1,000 Burmese-American Catholics gather in Coal Valley and Rock Island

Archbishop Emeritus Paul Zinghtung Grawng of the Archdiocese of Malay conveys his thanks to Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, for his hospitality to the National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics. Among those looking on is Father Anthony Co, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Rock Island, the spiritual home of the Quad Cities Myanmar Catholic Community. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

COAL VALLEY — Small in numbers, the Quad Cities Myanmar Catholic Community proved to be large in spirit and faith when they hosted the National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics from June 30 to July 4.

The event drew 1,000 people, including three Burmese bishops and 30 priests, to The Rock in Coal Valley for Masses, praise and worship, and leadership training, and included soccer and volleyball matches at the Campbell Sports Complex in Rock Island. With just a few months to prepare, one person said it was a miracle that everything came together so well.

A Kachin offertory dance is performed during the conference’s opening Mass to honor Archbishop Grawng, who is from the Kachin state in Myanmar. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“In Rock Island alone, they have 10 to 13 families, but this community is more than 100 families in terms of their spirit, their mind, their devotion and their commitment,” said John Sailon, NCBAC founder and president. “There are 1,000 families there in spirit.”

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the organization was established in 2010 under the guidance of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church. “They knew we had a strong culture and they wanted us to have our faith along with our culture so that we can make our faith deeper and stronger,” Sailon told The Catholic Post.

For the last seven years, the conference was held in the eastern part of the country and most of the participants come from surrounding states. To provide an opportunity for Burmese-American Catholics in other regions of the United States to come, the meeting was moved to the Midwest this year and will be held in Michigan next year.

Sailon said the change in location made it possible for people from Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Indiana to be present. Some came from as far away as Florida — a 20-hour drive — to be able to celebrate the sacraments in their own language.

In addition to Masses and confessions, one wedding was celebrated during the weekend at Sacred Heart Church in Rock Island, the spiritual home of the Burmese-American Catholics in the Quad Cities.


What many people from outside Myanmar — known as Burma for most of its history — don’t understand is that there are more than 130 minority ethnic groups in that country, Sailon explained. Each has its own dialect and cultural background.

Ethnic and religious persecution in the rural areas of Myanmar, including forced labor and military service with government troops, has caused many to look for a safe haven for their families elsewhere. Sailon, who left due to ethnic persecution 25 years ago, said America has become “the promised land” for these refugees.

Those ethnic differences make it difficult to be the leader of the Myanmar Catholic communities around the United States, however, so Sailon said youth leadership training is a key part of the conference. The 18- to 35-year-olds learn about physical and mental health, and how to manage stress, as well as servant-leadership.

Soccer for the men and volleyball for the women offer opportunities to get to know one another and have fun, he added.

There were 11 soccer teams competing for the NCBAC Cup this year, but it was the team from the Wheaton Myanmar Catholic Community that took it home. The top team in volleyball was from the Kansas City Myanmar Catholic Community.


Among the special guests welcomed to the conference on behalf of Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, by Father James DeBisschop, pastor of St. Maria Goretti in Coal Valley, were Archbishop Emeritus Paul Zinghtung Grawng of the Archdiocese of Mandalay, Bishop Lucius Hre Kung of the Diocese of Hakha, and Bishop John Saw Yaw Han, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Yangon.

John Sailon, NCBAC founder and president, also served as director for the choir made up of Burmese-American Catholics from around the United States. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Bishop Yaw Han was making his first visit as the newly appointed liaison between NCBAC and the Catholic Bishops Conference of Myanmar. He spent a month in the United States, crisscrossing the country to make pastoral visits to Burmese-American Catholic communities and his archdiocese’s seminarian at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver before returning home July 15.

He said he knows what it’s like to be out of your comfort zone.

From 2002 to 2004, Bishop Yaw Han studied for a master’s degree in moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, New York. To become more proficient in English he recorded his classes and studied his classmates’ notes, but admitted it was tiring being alone in a place where nothing was familiar.

“Every day I visited the Blessed Sacrament for one hour and said, ‘Lord, you are the one who brought me here. I will try my very best. The rest is in your hands. . . . Please help me,’” he told The Post. “With the help of my professors and fellow classmates, I was able to finish.”

That warm welcome and inclusion in the life of the church and society is what the Burmese-American Catholics need now, he said.


“People are welcoming and trying to understand. Their love and concern and their embrace is very encouraging to us,” Bishop Yaw Han said. There is a great desire among the people to have priests who can minister to them in their own language, however.

While he is happy that the Burmese-American Catholics are able to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities they did not have in Myanmar, the bishop said he continues to encourage them to use their labor and talents to make a contribution to the church and give back to their new country.

A player from the Chicago Myanmar Catholic Community handles the ball in a soccer match agains the Tulsa Myanmar Catholic Community. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

That is something Joseph Khup Lam Mang and his wife Nen Deih Cing of Rock Island take seriously. He is employed by Tyson Foods in Joslin, while she works the night shift at Berry Global in Bettendorf, Iowa.

Members of Sacred Heart in Rock Island, they have three children: Gabriel, 9; Michael, 7, and Veronica, 3. The two oldest just finished their first year at Jordan Catholic School in Rock Island and Gabriel made his First Communion in May.

They had to leave Myanmar when they found out the army was coming to kill Joseph. They came to the Quad Cities by way of a refugee camp in Malaysia and Boise, Idaho.

Why did they seek out the United States?

“Freedom,” Joseph said.

“They’re so happy to live here,” said Cathy Roller, a member of St. Mary in Rock Island, who has been assisting the Burmese community with their transition.

“They are so committed to their faith,” she said. “I told them I’m a better Catholic because of them, because of how committed they are to their family, their faith, and God.”

Speaking after the opening Mass, Father Anthony Co, pastor of both Rock Island faith communities, told his parishioners he was proud of their hard work on the conference. Praising their gift of faith, he asked God to “keep them strong, fill them with joy, and help them convert this nation.”

Many of the clergy and just a few of the 1,000 people who attended the National Conference of Burmese-American Clergy in Coal Valley posed for a photo after Mass on July 2. Seated in the middle is Bishop John Saw Yaw Han of the Archdiocese of Yangon. On his right is Archbishop Emeritus Paul Zinghtung Grawng of the Archdiocese of Mandalay and to his left is Bishop Lucius Hre Kung of the Diocese of Hakha, and Father James DeBisschop of St. Maria Goretti in Coal Valley, which hosted the conference. Near upper left is Father Jeremy Freehill. (Provided photo)


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