La Salette Missions, Myanmar (Burma)

In 1936 Burma was granted home rule and administratively separated from India. With the arrival of five Missionaries in November 9, 1937 in Akyab (Sitwe) led by Fr. Thomas Newman, MS, the history of one of the most difficult mission territories entrusted to the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette began. Arakan (Rakhine) state, even though geographically closer to India (later became East Pakistan) (Bangladesh) was a part of Burma (Myanmar). The Arakan section of the territory that was entrusted to the Holy Cross Fathers was given to the La Salettes.
It was isolated and the only way to reach it was by ship. The trip could take two or three days from either Rangoon (Yangon) or Calcutta. Though Akyab was the center of the mission, most of the activities were in the southern part in Sandoway (Thandwe). Fr. Tom was flat with Malaria when he heard that Fr. Weslak, MS one of his companions was sick and could not go there himself. When he heard that he was getting better he went to Akyab to see the last of the Holy Cross Missionaries off. Before he arrived on the 14th Fr. Tom heard that Fr. Weslak died on Feb. 13, 1938 from what sickness no one knew. But then the mission had to go on. With more missionaries coming in, the mission looked promising. Prome (Pyay) from Rangoon was added to the Mission. World War II broke out in 1942. Fr. Phil Gardener, MS was murdered around that time in Aunglan near Prome (Pyay) by robbers but it was not till after the war to look for his body buried in a shallow grave, identified by his pocket watch.
The height of the missionary activities began after the war. Since the country was still a colony of the British Crown, obtaining visas was relatively easy. That situation changed after independence from the British on January 4, 1948. No more permanent visas were issued and it became more difficult to get even temporary visas. The Burmese political leaders were assassinated on July 19, 1947. Only one was saved. He did not attend the shadow cabinet meeting due to a bad dream. There were so many problems in the country. The military was given the reign of country and elections took place after a few months. On March 2, 1962 General U Ne Win took over the country and the situation went from bad to worse. The riots and the massacre of many students in 1977 and 1988 were the darkest moments in the history of the country. Another election was held in 1990 but those who won never got to serve since there was no valid constitution.
The Missionaries never gave up hope though. They started the Apostolic School (minor seminary) in Akyab in 1962. They sent their first student (Bernard Taylor) abroad to the Philippines in 1963 to study. His visa was limited to the Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong. Due to the nationalization of the private schools (the La Salettes lost four schools) the minor seminary was closed permanently in 1965. When the seminary was closed, Fr. Noonan, MS, started to build up the native diocesan vocations and he sent them to the seminary in Taunggyi. He had to leave the missions because his visa, like other foreigners, was not renewed. Around that time a Catholic forest officer was assigned to Prome who had a son studying Theology in Rangoon. Bishop Newman pleaded for him for the diocese from the Archbishop of Rangoon and finally in 1967 Fr. Cornelius Kyaw Khine was ordained by him as the first native priest in the missions. In the seventies there were more native clergy: Fr. Bernard Taylor and Fr. Raphael Pho Seh in 1972 and Fr. Peter Maung Yin in 1973. When five more new priests were ordained for the diocese in 1975 the La Salette Missionaries decided to handover everything to the native clergy. Bishop Joseph Thaung Shwe took over the diocese in February of 1976. In November 1976, after 39 years of presence, the last two of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, (Frs. Charlie Gendron and Mike Blumm) left Myanmar.
The Latent Period: The La Salette Missionaries left, but devotion to Our Lady of La Salette was kept alive in the diocese. Fr. Bernard Taylor left the diocese in 1979 to join the La Salette Missionaries in the Philippines. The physical absence of the missionaries never stoped the people from honoring our Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of La Salette.
The New Beginnings: Fr. Taylor started recruiting for the La Salettes in Myanmar in Mid-90. Soon Myanmar seminarians were in Silang, Philippines together with their Indian brothers. Four Myanmar La Salettes took their first vows on May 1, 2000 and they were ordained priests on May 4, 2004. After a couple of exploratory trips to Myanmar the General Council decided to re-establish the Myanmar Missions in 2005. On November 18, 2005, the La Salette Missionaries started to administer to the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Chanthagone, the parish there and the neighboring parish in Myauk Kine and Myitnge quasi-parish. Thanks to the support of the Bishop, priests, religious and the people of Mandalay, the new missionaries became adjusted to their native land and culture after a very long absence.
The "saffron" revolution took place in 2007, it was a difficult year. The bloody demonstrations led by Buddhist monks forced the postponement of the ordination of Fr. Thomas Htang Shan Mong, MS to a later date. The dignitaries (the Apostolic Delegate and the Superior General) were unable to come. So the first La Salette ordination took place at Mandalay on October 26, 2007 at the Shrine of Our Lady with Archbishop Paul Grawng doing the honors.
Three more priests were ordained in 2008 and another group of three more were ordained in 2009. With the last group ordained, the first part of the history of the young Mission came to its conclusion. Now we take care of the diocesan Marian Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary, four parishes (Chanthagone, Myauk Kine-Myitnge, Zawgyi and Sinbyu) and three in the diocesan seminaries.
Besides these regular duties, the Missionaries have been involved in giving retreats, workshops and seminars / training programs, to Bishops, priests, Religious and lay people. A "spirituality center" has been established in Chanthagone with financial help from the Congregation of Propagation of Faith. A new central house is almost finished. This will provide a quiet private haven for the missionaries. The big storm, Nargis, brought out the generosity of many of our La Salette brothers and sisters. Restrictions of private organizations and persons to help the victims were strictly enforced. No matter how strict the laws may be there are always some ways of getting around them. With the help of some relatives and friends, Fr. Taylor was able to reach a lot of farmers, orphans and other victims. The building of a dispensary had to be stopped because the government took over the plot because it was very near the bridge they were repairing.
Looking Forward: With the help of regular "study days", the missionaries are looking forward to "make the message known". Accepting the invitation of Our Lady to "come closer", the missionaries are trying to establishing a well rounded program of apostolate, recruiting and formation. Studies are being made to extend the missions to Myitkyina (where the La Salette Sisters are). There are two candidates in the Philosophy department and four volunteers ("Come and See!) who want to join the community. Within a year or two some will be ready for postulancy and novitiate.
The challenge is not to spread out too thin and yet try to help the local church and the La Salette Community as much as possible. Discerning what Our Blessed Mother at La Salette has in mind for the missionaries, they will have to make the best of whatever scarce resources they have as gifts from God, Our Mother, the Community and friends and relatives. Recruitment will have to start. La Salettes have the advantage of the being the third male pontifical congregation (the others are Salesians and Brothers of the Christian Schools) in the country with native members. Though it may take a while, a Myanmar program of La Salette formation is being planned.
Even with all the restrictions and prohibitions, acquiring properties and building have been possible. The generosity of the General Council and the other provinces has removed all financial worries. A formation Fund for the district is building up slowly. After finding a place for the central house, a new center will be built. The center will house all formation and a spirituality center and a shrine. Mandalay is right in the center of the country and transportation to and from the area is very good. Our Lady has brought us to the center of the country to spread her message of reconciliation. Thank you everyone for joining us in building up the missions. Fr. Bernard Taylor, MS

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