Remembering the Columbans
By Arlenne B. Villahermosa
The author, a Columban lay missionary who has served in Korea and as coordinator in the Philippines, is from Talisay City, Cebu, and is now based in the Diocese of Banmaw in the Kachin State, northern Myanmar (Burma).
L to R: Sr. Ashwena, Arlenne, Sr. Mary and Columba
‘Because the Columbans love us . . .’ This was the reply of a Kachin woman to a Columban priest when asked about the elaborate celebrations in honor of the Columbans when 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 well with gratitude in their hearts
This gratitude is shown in their prayers, in their stories and in the way they celebrate the feast of St Columban every year. During my first experience of this in Banmaw in 2009, when it coincided with the thanksgiving for the harvest, I was 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 the Columbans have done? Or was it the people - or something beyond them?
Visit of Bishop Michael Smith of Meath, Ireland, to the Diocese of Banmaw, November 2009
This video includes an offertory procession with the Manau dance. It also shows Bishop Smith visiting the graves of three Irish Columbans. He mentions that St Columban’s, Dalgan Park, where most Irish Columbans were educated and where many are now retired and buried, is in his diocese.
The celebration started with Holy Mass. I was invited to join the offertory procession and provided with the proper dress for the tradition Manau dance that accompanied it. It was beautiful for me, a Columban lay missionary, to participate, 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 right after Mass that caught me speechless. The children from the different boarding houses (the boarding house is a program of the Catholic Church initiated by Columban Missionaries) sang songs, some of which were original compositions for the feast of St Columban or for the Columbans. The life of St Columban was read, as is always done. The offering of gifts moved me to tears. Young and old, men, women and children, carried sacks of rice, baskets of fruits and vegetables, mostly produce of their own farms, to the stage as an offering of thanksgiving. The line was surprisingly long.
While watching these simple people lining up to offer their gifts, conscious not so much of the produce but of the meaning, sincerity and gratitude that came with them, I asked a local Sister, with a heart full of unexplained feelings, the meaning of this event. Her answer will forever be etched in my memory and in my heart with joy and gratitude to God: the Kachin people, especially those who experienced the Columbans, are very grateful to them for bringing 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 Columbans had shared with the people in the Kachin State many decades ago, the people thank them through the present representatives of the Church. They also thank the local church for continuing in the faith and for taking care of the people. Above all, they thank God for sending them the Columbans who planted the many years ago that continue to bear fruit until now.
I was a witness to a great mission that began 75 years ago. I was also silently giving thanks to God for calling me to be part of the present mission.
Now, on 24-25 March 2011, the Diocese of Banmaw was celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of the arrival of the Columbans in the Kachin State and the Golden Jubilee of the dedication of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
It was a great celebration indeed for the local church and especially for the parishioners whose lives have been touched in different ways by Columbans. Great was their joy when they knew that some Columbans were coming. Fr Colm Murphy, who formerly in Banmaw, represented all who had been assigned to the Kachin State; Fr Eamon Sheridan represented the Columban General Council; Sr Mary Dillon and Sr Ashwena Apao, from Jimenez, Misamis Occidental, represented the Columban Sisters, Columba Chang and I the Columban Lay Missionaries. People came as representatives of their respective parishes or in their own capacity. Some had to travel for two or more days to reach Banmaw. Most were housed in parish halls and boarding houses. Food was provided by the local Catholics.
2011 Kachin Manau Festival
The first day of the celebration, 24 March, started with the traditional Kachin dance called the Manau, with participants from the different ethnic groups of the 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.’ (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’.) The celebration lasted for about two jubilant hours. Fr Colm Murphy, Columba and I joined the dance with our traditional Kachin dresses – Columba’s that of the Hka Hku tribe, mine that of the Jinghpau tribe. There were booths selling kitchenware, 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 Columban priests assigned to Banmaw and some of their works and activities, like the group who built St Patrick’s Cathedral, were on display, all with captions in Burmese, Kachin and English. Many of the pictures were of Fr David Wall, who worked for many years in Peru after leaving Burma and is now retired in Ireland, brought by Fr Colm Murphy. Some belonged to the diocese.
Brochures in three languages, English, Burmese and Kachin, about the Columbans in Banmaw were given away. While working on 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 and has gained for me deeper insights on the mission in the Kachin State. As I sat down and reflected on the events unfolding before me, it crossed my mind that an open and generous heart begets openness and generosity.
The second day, 25 March, was the day of the main celebration. Holy Mass was celebrated with about 5,000 attending. The entrance procession included the Manau dance with Kachin traditional instruments and the bagpipe being played. The four Kachin bishops, Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng of Mandalay, Bishop Philip Lasap Za Hawng of Lashio, Bishop Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina and Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw, together with Fr Eamon Sheridan and Fr Colm Murphy led the congregation. About forty-four priests from the four dioceses mentioned concelebrated. Archbishop Paul, the second bishop of Myitkyina, installed by the late Columban Bishop John Howe, the first, was the main celebrant and gave the homily. The offertory was accompanied by the Manau dance. Most of the Mass songs were original compositions of locals. I was one of the choir members singing these original Kachin Jubilee Mass songs.
It was great joy for me to be part of the preparation and celebration on this important occasion. Being with the people, staying with them late at night to practice the songs, being one with them when reprimanded for bad singing, practicing and laboring with them, was like walking with them on their journey of seventy-five years as a people of faith. They thanked God for the love he bestowed on them through the life and work of the Columbans; I thanked God for them for welcoming us into their homes with open hearts and for accepting us as we are.
A short program in the church, in which the Columbans were honored, followed the Mass. Much was said and done in appreciation of all the love and concern that the Columbans gave to the people in Banmaw. Great was their joy when Fr Colm Murphy tried his best to deliver his message in both Burmese and Kachin. Fr Eamon Sheridan gave a short speech thanking the people for the love they have shown. Sr Ashwena gave a message on behalf of the Columban Sisters and the people were delighted to hear her speak the Kachin language well. Deep down, as I was listening to what was happening, I also felt like honoring the Kachins for their simplicity in living out their faith, in expressing their gratitude and in sharing their love. In their simplicity I saw the sincerity of their generosity. Their simplicity made everything beautiful.
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 second Manau Dance. Three of the Kachin bishops, some priests, including Father Eamon, some Sisters including Sister Ashwena, myself, plus the youth, men, women and children from the different Kachin tribal groups, were dancing to the sound of traditional Kachin musical instruments, drums and flutes, with the ‘oldies’ singing the more classical traditional songs. The youth sang more upbeat, modern Kachin songs to the sound of the modern keyboard. 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 in the evening.
On March 26, Saturday, a thanksgiving Mass was held at 7am in St Patrick’s Cathedral for all who prepared and participated in the combined jubilee celebrations. Then there was another Mass in honor of the Columbans and all the other missionaries, especially the Paris Foreign Missionaries (MEP) who died in Banmaw was celebrated by Fr Eamon Sheridan at the graveyard where they are buried. The four Kachin bishops, Fr Colm Murphy and many diocesan priests concelebrated. The people still flocked to the cemetery despite the fact that they had already attended the thanksgiving Mass. It was also drizzling. It was a good time for many, especially for those who came from faraway places, to visit the graves of the Columban Missionaries whom they loved and missed.
The joint Jubilee celebrations watered the fruits of the seeds planted by the brave, encouraging Columban Missionaries between 1936 and 1979 and in a more limited way in recent years. It is hoped that these fruits will shed more seeds that will grow and continue to multiply and bear many 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, have come to be and will be.
You may email Arlenne at firstname.lastname@example.org