Catholics – a Minority
Which is Growing In August 1937, while Burma was still a British colony, four American La Salette Missionaries – Fr. (later Bishop) Thomas Newman, Frs. Edward O’Sullivan, Joseph Gardner and Joseph LaBonte – left for Burma to minister in the Arakan district. Akyab would be their initial center of operations, later to be transferred to Prome when this mission became a diocese. With a population of about a million people, only 750 were Catholics, mostly concentrated in four mission posts – Akyab, Sandoway, Gyeikaw and Chaungtha. More La Salettes were to follow in coming years, and the new mission districts of Prome and Thayetmyo were added. They settled down to missionary life: long journeys by boat, ox-cart or walking to visit Catholics scattered in the mountains and the delta; scant living conditions; struggle with the language and customs of the people; yet with a Gospel to proclaim and life-giving sacraments to offer.

World War II

map

Old map indicating Arakan
district of Burma

Concentration Camps Then in 1942 came the war and interment in Japanese concentration camps. They knew what was coming, but also knew why they were there. As the British troops were pulling out – this was the last chance they also would have to get out – Fr. John O’Reilly sent with them a letter to his mother written on May 3, 1942. “This opportunity of writing will probably be my last for a long time. The Japanese have overrun most of Burma, and are laying siege to Akyab. We have had some air raids, but, thank God, we have escaped injury … We of course are staying on because we cannot abandon our missionary
work just because of the present crisis. We are doing God’s work, and we know that he will protect us. Please don’t worry about me therefore even if you don’t hear for me for some time. I am


 
perfectly at peace in spite of all the dangers.” And dangers there were in abundance! The next day they were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and remained so until their liberation on September 12, 1945. Fr. Phil Gardner was murdered. Isolation in the camp at Tovoy, where they finally ended up after months of travel under ruthless conditions, was brutal and complete. They were starved, lacked medication, suffered dysentery, and so maltreated that, in later years, they found just too horrifying to even recount. When rescued, besides food, the one thing they asked for was “a shave and a haircut,” something they had been denied for all that time.

crew
Picture of the La Salettes Forced to leave Burma in 1976

Happily Returning Once Again

One diocesan priest had always wanted to be a La Salette Missionary – Fr. Bernard Taylor (his Burmese name is U Thein). He received permission to go to the Philippines where he joined the Filipino Province. He was to be the link for the resurgence of La Salette Missionaries in his homeland. He returned, from time to time, to recruit among the young who wanted to serve the Church as La Salettes – both as La Salette Missionaries and as La Salette Sisters.


In November 2005 the Myanmar Conference of Bishops officially welcomed thesetwo groups into the country – the Missionaries to staff a Marian shrine at Chanthagon outside Mandalay and serve in three parishes, and the Sisters in the north in Tatkone, a section of Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin State. Today there are fourteen Missionaries and five Sisters living and ministering to their own people. Fr. Bernie said that when times got tough, when returning to his homeland to re-found a La Salette presence there seemed impossible, he always recalled an incident from his early days as a priest. “Returning to my homeland taught me a great lesson. Since we had nothing when we arrived, everything was gift. When you are hungry food becomes more delicious. You see everything from a different perspective. The fathers thought I was frail and sickly – at 5’8” and 120 lbs. I remember once complaining to Bishop Newman about how tough it was visiting the mountain villages. He told me: ‘Bernie, look at what you have done. When going to Thamien (a village up north) you thought you would not be able to cross over the Lamoitaung mountains. One step at a time you did what seemed impossible. Just look back at the mountains you have crossed and you’ll know you can cross them another time.’ Yes, there is nothing impossible with the Lord.”

 

Three months later they were back in their mission posts – or what was left of them. Houses, churches, schools – all were destroyed. A few months later when Monsignor Newman had finally visited all the mission posts he wrote to the American Provincial: “I have just returned from a two-month tour of the whole mission. It was a very consoling experience spiritually. The material losses are, of course, heavy. But the people are very enthusiastic and loyal. I have decided to leave for the states … The purpose of my visit, Frank, as you know is to enlist new recruits… It will be good to see you, especially if you are good enough to give me at least ten new men.”

Sadly Leaving the Land of Burma

He never really got his ten men, although some did make it to Burma. Soon the government, in a tactic toward nationalization, took control of every facet of life. Schools, even seminaries, had to be turned over to the government. They began limiting visas, then revoking them, even the permanent ones. In 1976 the last of the American La Salette missionaries were forced to leave. But they had accomplished the mission given to them. Solid foundations had been laid. Where they had received four missionary districts with 750 Catholics, the La Salette Missionaries would leave the young, vibrant diocese of Prome with a native Bishop and a sufficient native clergy to continue ministering to the now 10,757 Catholics in 52 villages and towns where they lived.
Yes, that mission was accomplished, but did another await the La Salettes?

 


by Fr. Jack Nuelle, M.S.