Jubilee Article: Remembering the Columbans

“Because the Columbans love us…” This was the reply of one (1) Kachin lady to a Columban priest when asked about the elaborate celebrations they gave to the Columbans when in fact there were other missionaries who came before them.

The people in Banmaw have never forgotten what it was like to be loved by them.  They have remembered and remembered well with gratitude in their hearts.

L to R: Sr. Ashwena, Arlenne (this article's author), Sr. Mary, and Columba
This gratitude is shown in their prayers, in their stories and in the way they remember and celebrate the feast of St. Columban every year.  During my first celebration of the feast of St. Columban in Banmaw in 2009, which coincided with their thanksgiving for the harvest, I was simply struck by the simplicity and generosity of the people expressed in many ways.  I could only give a deep sigh of gratitude to God because all words fell short of what I personally experienced that day.  What could have had the Columbans done?  Or was it the people?   Or was it something beyond them?



The celebration started with a holy mass. During the offertory, the manau dance was performed and I was invited to join – they provided me the dress. It ushered the offerers to the altar.  It was a beautiful experience for me, as a Columban lay missionary, to be able to participate in their traditional offertory dance and being one with the people in offering thanks to God for the many blessings received including the gift of faith and mission.  But it was the program that followed right after the mass that caught me speechless. The children from the different boarding houses (the boarding house is a program of the Catholic Church initiated by the Columban Missionaries) sang songs some of which were original compositions for the feast of St. Columban or for the Columban Missionaries.  The life of St. Columban was read, as they always do during the celebration of his feast day.  The offering of gifts moved me to be teary-eyed.  People, young and old, men, women and children, carried sacks of rice, baskets of fruits, vegetables, etc. mostly from the produce of their own farms, bringing them to the stage as an offering of thanksgiving.  The queue was surprisingly long. While watching these simple people lining up for their turn to offer their gifts, not so much for the product but for the meaning, sincerity and gratitude that came with it, with a heart full of unexplained feelings, I asked a local sister the meaning of this event.  And she gave me an answer which will forever be etched in my memory and in my heart with joy and gratitude to God.  She said that the Kachin people, especially those who have had experiences with the Columbans, are very much grateful to the Columban Missionaries for bringing to them the faith that they have now.  As a sign of their gratitude for the love and faith they have received and for bringing God’s love into their land they offer to the church something of what they have.  Since the priests, religious, catechists and lay leaders are fruits of what the Columban Missionaries had given to and shared with the people in Kachin land many decades ago, the people give their thanks to the Columban Missionaries through the present representatives of the church.  They also give thanks to the local church for continuing the faith and for taking care of the people.  And above all, they give thanks to God for sending them the Columban Missionaries whose seeds being planted many years ago continue to bear fruits up until the present times.

At that time, I was a witness to a great mission that happened 73 years ago.  While being in that situation, I was also silently giving thanks to God for calling me to be part of the present mission.

Now, in the year 2011, the diocese of Banmaw has celebrated the 75th Jubilee of the arrival of the Columban Missionaries to Kachin land and the 50th Jubilee of the dedication of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on March 24-25, 2011.

It was a great celebration indeed for the local church and especially for the parishioners whose lives have been touched, in different ways, by the Columban Missionaries.  Great was their joy when they knew that some of the Columban Missionaries were coming and one of them was formerly assigned to Banmaw.  Colm Murphy represented the former Columbans assigned to Kachin land; Eamon Sheridan came as a representative of the General Council; the Columban Sisters were represented by Mary Dillon and Ashwena Apao; Columba Chang and myself for the Columban Lay Missionaries. People from different parts of the diocese came as representatives of their respective parishes or on their own capacity.  Some had to travel for two (2) or more days to reach Banmaw parish where the celebration was held.  Most of them were housed at the Banmaw parish halls and boarding houses.  Food was provided for the people.

Leaders of the Manau Dance
The first day of the celebration, March 24, started with the Kachin traditional dance called the Manau dance, represented by the different ethnic groups of Kachin State.  This dance is a “source of unity and solidarity, a bridge that links today’s Kachin people with their past.  It is a chain that continues to bond lost relatives and friends.  It is the medium that has kept reminding the Kachins of their origin and destination.”  (taken from the thesis of Fr. John Zau Doi on “Manau Dance and Its Integration in the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the Diocese of Myitkyina, Myanmar”) It lasted for about two (2) jubilant hours.  Colm Murphy, Columba and I joined the dance with our traditional Kachin dresses – Columba’s from Hka Hku tribe while mine was from the Jinghpau tribe. There were different kinds of booths selling different kinds of things – kitchen wares, traditional dresses, traditional handicrafts and artworks, traditional herbal medicine, food, drinks, religious articles, shirts, trousers, etc… A stage show in honor of the Columban Missionaries was held in the evening. 

An exhibit showing some old pictures of the former Columban priests assigned to Banmaw and some of their works and activities, like the group who built St. Patrick’s Cathedral, were put on display – all with Burmese, Kachin and English captions.  Many of the pictures were of David Wall’s brought to Banmaw by Colm Murphy.  Some of the pictures belonged to the diocese.

Brochures in three (3) languages – English, Burmese & Kachin – about of the Columban Missionaries in Banmaw were given away.  While working on these two assignments – the exhibit and the English leaflet, I gained more insights about the Columbans in Banmaw, especially their mission, work and the relationship they established with the people.  This experience has deepened my sense of being a Columban lay missionary here in Banmaw and has gained for me deeper insights on the mission in Kachin land.  As I sat down and reflected on the events unfolding before me, this insight crossed my mind:  An open and generous heart begets openness and generosity.

The Manau Post
March 25, the second day, was the actual day of the celebration. A holy mass was celebrated with an estimate of about 5,000 people attending the celebration.  The entrance procession was ushered by a Manau dance with the Kachin traditional instruments and the bagpipe being played together.  The four Kachin Bishops:  Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng of Mandalay Diocese, Bishop Philip Lasap Za Hawng of Lashio Diocese, Bishop Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina Diocese and Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw Diocese, together with Eamon Sheridan and Colm Murphy lead the congregation.  Together with them about some other forty-four (44) priests from the four (4) dioceses just mentioned concelebrated the mass. Archbishop Paul, the first Kachin bishop installed by Bishop Howe, presided the mass and gave the homily. During the offertory, the Manau dance was performed.  Most of the songs that were sung during the mass were original compositions by the local people.  I had the privilege of being one of the choir members to sing original Kachin Jubilee mass songs. It was great joy for me to be part in the preparation and celebration of this important occasion in the church of Banmaw Diocese.  Being with them, staying with them late at night to practice songs, being one with them when reprimanded for bad singing practice and laboring with them was like walking with the people in their journey of seventy-five (75) years as a people of faith.  They gave thanks to God for the love he has bestowed on them through the life and works of the Columban Missionaries in their land; I gave thanks to God for them for welcoming us into their homes with open hearts and for accepting us as we are.

A short program followed the mass with all the people still sitting inside the church.  The Columban Missionaries were honored during the program.  Much was said and done in appreciation for all the love and concern that the Columbans have given to the people in Banmaw. Great was their joy when Colm Murphy tried his best to deliver his message both in Burmese and Kachin languages.  Eamon gave a short speech thanking the people for the love they have shown. Ashwena gave the message on behalf of the Columban sisters and the people were delighted to hear her spoke in her good Kachin language. And deep down, as I was listening to what was happening, I also felt like honoring them for their simplicity in living out their faith, in expressing their gratitude and in sharing their love.  In their simplicity I saw the sincerity in their generosity.  Their simplicity made everything beautifully great.

Arlenne (2nd from left)  with the Kachin Group 
After the program, a simple lunch with traditional Kachin food was served to the guests.

We witnessed in the afternoon a big number of people joining the 2nd Manau Dance.  Three of the Kachin bishops, some priests including Eamon, some sisters including Ashwena (Columban Sister), myself, plus the youth, men, women and children from the different Kachin tribal groups were dancing to the tune of the traditional Kachin musical instruments – drums and flute, with the “oldies” singing the more classical traditional songs and to the tune of the modern keyboard instrument with the youth singing a more modern upbeat Kachin song.  It was a unity dance for the whole community.

A solemn procession followed the Manau dance which was then followed by a community dinner.  Then a show was staged until late hours in the evening.

On March 26, Saturday, a thanksgiving mass was held early in the morning at 7am at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for all the people who prepared for and participated in the combined jubilee celebrations.  Then following immediately the thanksgiving mass another mass in honor of the Columban Missionaries and all the other missionaries, especially the French Missionarie who died in Banmaw while on mission was celebrated by Eamon Sheridan at the graveyard where they were buried. The mass was concelebrated by Colm Murphy, the four (4) Kachin bishops and a good number of diocesan priests.  The people still flocked to the cemetery despite the fact that they had already attended the thanksgiving mass. It was also drizzling at that time. It was a good time for many, especially for those who came from far away places, to pay visit to the Columban Missionaries whom they have loved and missed.

The joint Jubilee celebrations watered the fruits of the seeds that have been planted by the brave encouraging Columban Missionaries 75 years ago.   It is hoped that by it the fruits will shed-off more seeds that will grow and continue to multiply and bear much more fruits… then Banmaw Diocese will not only be a vineyard of good and inspiring memories but of a faith that is alive and growing.

It is only with the love and grace of God that all things came to be, has come to be and will be.


Arlenne B. Villahermosa
Columban Lay Missionary
Banmaw Diocese
25 June 2011

3 comments:

thomas said...

thank you for your missionary vocation and witness

Rolex said...

Really nice to hear of any missionary stories like this. thanks Arlene for sharing your life and your experiences in the mission in Myanmar.

Rolex said...

Thanks Arlene.