By Mike Viola
How does a church named after the patron saint of Ireland, located in St. Paul, Minnesota, become the focal point of outreach to an ethnic group from Laos? It’s a testament to the diversity of ministry of the Missionary Oblates.
The Oblates’ St. Patrick Parish is home to a thriving community of people with Hmong heritage. The Hmong are an ethnic group from Laos that were evangelized in the 1950s and 60s by Catholic missionaries, including the Missionary Oblates. The Hmong were supporters of the United States during the Vietnam War. As a result, they were persecuted by the Communists when they took over Laos. Many Hmong fled the country, and thousands found their way to Minnesota.
Under the leadership of Fr. Daniel Taillez, O.M.I. the Oblates reached out to the Hmong community in St. Paul to not only meet their spiritual needs, but also help the Hmong preserve their culture. Father Dan had been a missionary among the Hmong in Laos until he was forced to flee the country by the Communists.
In St. Paul, Fr. Dan founded the Hmong American National Catholic Association to develop prayer books, hymnals and other worship materials for Hmong Catholics. The organization is still in operation today and works with Catholic communities across the United States to enhance their Hmong ministries.
Father Dan spent 20 years ministering to the Hmong in St. Paul. During that time he baptized more than 500 Hmong people into the Church. In 2002, Fr. Dan moved back to Asia and took over responsibility for Hmong programming at Radio Veritas which broadcasts throughout Southeast Asia.
In St. Paul the Hmong community recently celebrated a new ministry with the creation of the first Hmong Oblate Associates chapter at St. Patrick Parish. Eight people from the Hmong community became Oblate Associates. As Oblate Associates, they meet regularly to pray and study the charism of the Missionary Oblates. They also care for the poor through individual and collective works of service.
Remembering the past, enhancing the present and preserving a culture for the future. The Missionary Oblates and the Hmong people have blessed each other for many years and will continue to do so with hope, love and compassion.
“Thank you for bringing us to this church.”
Doctor Sia Lo, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Parish in St. Paul, Minnesota wrote this testimonial recently about Fr. Harry Winter, O.M.I. and the other Oblates who serve the local Hmong community.
“On behalf of the Catholic Hmong congregation here at St. Patrick I want to thank you, Fr. Harry, for bringing us to this church. Without you, we might not be here today. So thank you so much for everything that you have done to find us a home.
About a century or so ago, it was other Oblate priests from France like you that found our people in the jungle of Laos. They risked their lives to find us in that jungle. Once they found us, they took the time to learn our culture and our ways — in order to truly teach us about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
When they found us we did not have a written language, and so they created one for us. Using the Roman characters, they developed our written language for the first time. Today, all the Hmong around the world can communicate with each other through writing thanks to our Oblate priests. In fact, every time I write in Hmong, I cannot help but think about them. (Fr. Yves Bertrais, O.M.I. was the author of the first Hmong-French dictionary published in 1964.)
When we were refugees in Thailand, the Catholic Church was instrumental in bringing our people into the U.S. and Minnesota. It was the charity of the Catholic Church that clothed and fed many of our families until we were able to provide for ourselves. So our community is truly indebted to you and the Catholic Church.
But of all the good things that the Catholic Church has done for us, we are most thankful for our Oblate priests — and especially you today, Fr. Harry, for being who you are. For you are true representatives of Christ here on earth. Through Christ you clean our souls every Sunday with holy water and protect us from evil. Through Christ you taught us the blessing of Heaven and the true purpose of life. Through the power of Christ, you have led us to be closer to God and for that we cannot thank you enough.”