Columban History in Burma (Myanmar)

February 15, 2010

At the request of the Vatican, the Columban Fathers went to Burma in Southeast Asia in 1936. The northern half of the huge Mandalay Vicariate, peopled with the tribal people known as Kachins, Karens, Shans and Burmans, was entrusted to eight Columbans. This territory became the Prefecture of Bhamo.

Columban Fathers Neil Magill and Victor Gaboury (in back row) with Bishop Francis Daw Nang (in between them) and seminarians in the Diocese of Myitkyina in Myanmar in 2003.

A mountainous jungle area, roughly the size of Indiana, meant traveling on foot or pony with a pack mule to carry supplies. Hikes of five to ten hours in a steamy jungle were the norm as the priests set out to develop mission stations in distant villages.

They concentrated their efforts mainly among the Kachin tribal people whose belief in spirits made them more open to the Gospel message. But three Columbans were assigned to work among the Shans, who were Buddhists.

In the three years before World War II, 18 more Columbans joined the mission. In 1942, when the Japanese invaded Burma, 21 were arrested and interned in Mandalay. Two of the remaining four escaped into China and two managed to remain in the hills with their people. On the day Mandalay was liberated, four of those interned were injured by a stray shell, and one of them died later as a result of his injuries.

When the war ended in 1945, missions and schools were reopened, ruined churches and dwellings rebuilt, new areas explored and two high schools were opened. The Columban Sisters, who arrived in 1947, opened a boarding school for girls in Myitkyina and later a clinic in a remote jungle village.

In 1948, Burma became an independent nation and the government limited the number of Catholic missionaries in the country. At that time, 30 Columban priests and six Columban Sisters were working in the Kachin State. During the following 18 years, 10 Columban priests and four Columban Sisters were allowed to replace those who had died or who had to leave because of illness.

Columban Father Bernard Way instructs Kachin boys in Burma in how to sing Gregorian chants.

New parishes and schools were opened. By the end of 1952, the number of baptized Catholics had grown to 7,000 with an additional 5,000 catechumens. Six years later, there were 13,000 Catholics and about 7,000 catechumens, 19 brick and wooden churches, a number of clinics and a school system.

As the number of Catholics grew, more and more catechists were trained. Many resided in widely scattered out-villages. The priests, too, were spread over a wider territory; 13 in one-man parishes. In 1960, the Prefecture of Bhamo became a diocese and the newly ordained bishop became bishop of Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin State.

The ’60s saw the insurrection of the Kachin Independence Army that sought to create an independent Kachin State. In 1965, the government nationalized all the mission schools. The parishes continued to maintain the boarding section of the two high schools as hostels for boys and girls from the hills and provided many vocations for the priesthood and religious life.

The following year missionaries who had entered Burma after 1948 were forced to leave the country. This left 21 Columban priests and no Columban Sisters.

Realizing that their days in Burma were numbered, the Columbans devoted their energies to the formation of local priests, Sisters, catechists and lay leaders. In this way, they hoped to leave a self-reliant Church when they were forced to leave.

In 1977, the diocese was handed over to Bishop Zinghtung Grawng, the first Kachin to be ordained a priest. When the Columbans withdrew from Burma in 1979, Bishop Grawng, not yet 40 years old, had a dozen Kachin priests, some 40 Sisters from two congregations and a very active laity.

In the 2000s, Columbans have returned, in a limited capacity, to Burma, now called Myanmar, especially in Myitkyina where Columbans Sisters have established ministries, including one addressing the nation’s growing HIV-AIDS problem. Columban Fathers have helped with the formation of young seminarians in Myitkyina, as well.

With continuing Columban support and in spite of many hardships resulting from the ongoing unstable political situation, the Kachin Church will continue to grow as a mature apostolic community.