It’s 6:30 p.m. on May 30, 2019, and Sister Suzanne Sims is meeting Deacon Stephen Van Lal Than on Dixiana Court in Owensboro, Ky. The street is full of apartment houses, and over the past several years, more of those apartments have become homes for Burmese immigrants.
About a half dozen of the families in this complex are members of St. Pius X Parish in Owensboro, where Sister Suzanne has served as director of faith formation since December 2016. The parish now has 55 Burmese families, totaling about 150 people.
“One man came to Mass in 2015,” Sister Suzanne said. “The next week he brought some buddies. It grew from there.”
Sister Suzanne’s family was a charter member of St. Pius and she went to school there beginning in the fifth grade. When she was praying about her next ministry in 2016, the pastor at St. Pius, Father Tom Buckman, called her and said, “Your home parish needs you. You know we have Burmese families in our parish.”
Sister Suzanne never aspired to teach religious education in a parish, but she’s long had a passion to work with the poor. Even as she struggles to communicate with the Burmese adults, she’s learned much from their example.
“I think the Burmese community can teach the rest of us in our parish how to be a family again,” Sister Suzanne said. “They are all about family. They don’t spend money on anything that isn’t important to the family. It’s taught me the people who have less are the happiest. I profess poverty, but it’s taught me to continually examine myself.”
Sister Suzanne coordinates catechists to do faith formation for the young children in the parish, and she works with teenagers. The Burmese adults all have children who are active in the parish programs, which keeps Sister Suzanne interacting with the families.
“As soon as they join the parish, they want to get involved,” Sister Suzanne said. “They want their envelopes first” to begin donating to the church, she said.
During the school year, Sister Suzanne visits families in their homes one or two nights a week. She spends the most time with the dozen families who send their children to Catholic school, because they need help with the application forms – which are in English.
On this night she visited Felicity Nu Neh and her three children – Justina, about to turn 13, Christina, 4, and the baby, Angelina. Nu Neh understands some English, but has difficulty speaking the language. Sister Suzanne usually has to rely on Justina to translate, who speaks fluent English, but this night she is joined by Deacon Stephen, a Burmese native.
“I like when Sister comes,” Justina said. “It’s fun to talk to other people because I’m not very interactive.”
Justina was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, but the family – along with Nu Neh’s husband, Mo Leing – arrived in America in 2010, spending time in North Carolina and Arkansas before moving to Owensboro in summer 2018. Sister Suzanne met the family when she came to help Justina get registered for Owensboro Catholic Middle School, where she just completed seventh grade.
On this night, Sister Suzanne brought a sign to promote the St. Pius picnic, and some forms to register the children for Vacation Bible School. She asked Justina if she would like to be a junior leader, and Justina said she would. Justina also asked if there were a youth group at the church.
The Burmese culture is very welcoming, and within moments of Sister Suzanne and Deacon Stephen’s arrival, Nu Neh brought them bottles of water and then a Burmese delicacy, muklungsickyow, which translates to “circular fried bread.” It is a chewy bread ball covered in sesame seeds, with coconut hiding inside.
The two guests visited for an hour with the family, which Sister Suzanne has learned through interpreters in important.
“I’ve learned they are just as frustrated as I am that we can’t communicate,” Sister Suzanne said. “They want us to stay and get to know each other better. They want us to hear what they enjoy and what they struggle with, they don’t want us to be in and out for a task.”
Deacon Stephen – who will be ordained a priest in 2020 – and a seminarian, Martin Ma Na Ling, arrived in the Diocese of Owensboro in 2017 from their native Myanmar (Burma) so they could serve the burgeoning Burmese community in the diocese. Deacon Stephen was assigned to St. Pius for the summer.
“Every family has their own prayer center in their home, based on their culture,” he said. “Most people have a picture of the Sacred Heart. We call it a ‘home altar.’ When we enter a Burmese home, we take off our shoes and we usually sit on the floor. We never turn our back to the home altar, and we never stretch out our legs when we face it, we sit with our legs folded.”
Deacon Stephen translated for Nu Neh when she was asked what Sister Suzanne’s visits means to her.
“She came from a Catholic family. Her husband is a convert, he was baptized here,” Deacon Stephen said. “She is very, very happy every time Sister visits them, but they can’t communicate if the children aren’t here. They are always happy to have anyone from the Church. They feel honored.”
While some of the Burmese refugees have joined Protestant churches, her parents taught her to be Catholic, Deacon Stephen said. “She knows this is the true faith.”
Deacon Stephen said even he has some trouble communicating with the Burmese community. “Most people do not speak Burmese, they only speak their dialect. No one here speaks my dialect,” he said. “There are 48 dialects in my hometown, but only seven are recognized by the government.”
The two visitors headed to the next household, with Sister Suzanne carrying a basket of candy to share with the children she meets. After a short visit with a family, the two are asked to come to another home to pray for a family member who has pneumonia.
There are half a dozen teenagers in the small apartment, some on a computer like most teens, but when Deacon Stephen arrives with his holy water and says, “let’s pray,” all the teens stand and prepare to pray. Sister Suzanne sits on the couch next to the sick woman, putting her hand on her shoulder.
Two hours after they first arrived, the two finally head home. They promise each other to check up on the sick woman until they visit again.