CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
Sr. Alice Thepouthay tipped back in her chair, threw her hands up and laughed. In 1984, the pastor at St. Michael’s Congregation in Milwaukee took Sr. Alice, a sister of charity of St. Joan of Antida, to survey a station wagon which was clearly too big — she drew out the word as she opened her arms wide — for a woman of her small stature to see over the wheel.
As she shared, Sr. Alice’s smile seeped through her subtle accent and the melody of her memories filled the newly updated conference room at St. Michael’s.
Predominantly populated by refugees and migrants, St. Michael is a booming community, ethnically and linguistically diverse, and runs on the generosity of parishioners, priests, and other prayerful people like Sister.
A refugee from Laos, Sr. Alice moved to Milwaukee in 1984 and claimed St. Michael as her home when the bishop asked if she would serve the growing refugee community.
Then and today, the parishioners and refugees on the south side of the city affectionately call her mother in their respective native tongues.
At a parish where the Mass was originally celebrated in German, today the Sunday liturgy is prayed in a mix of languages and nine native tongues are represented in the congregation: Hmong, Lao, Karen, Karenni, Chin, Kachin, Burmese, Spanish and English.
“When we have a pastoral council meeting, it is like you are in the United Nations. Every single color and culture is represented,” Pastor Fr. Rafael Rodriguez said.
“We have representation from every continent except for Australia and Antarctica,” he joked. And Fr. Rodriguez makes sure to greet parishioners at the beginning of Mass in their native tongue.
Historically, German immigrants filled the pews of St. Michael on Sundays. During the 1970s, immigrants from Puerto Rico and Cuba joined the fold, followed by Hmong refugees in the 1980s. In the last few decades, refugees from Laos, Myanmar, Congo, Tanzania, Eritrea and other countries moved to Milwaukee and also found a home at St. Michael’s.
When Sr. Alice first arrived in 1984, the parish was in disarray and it took decades of volunteer labor from the parishioners and the intense dedication of religious and priests like Sr. Alice and Fr. Rodriguez for the parish to start to thrive again.
“This church is really a mission church,” Sr. Alice said, and Fr. Rodriguez emphasized — mission and evangelization.
Each year, the parish has around 30 to 40 people undergoing RCIA and receiving the sacraments at the Easter Vigil. One year in the 1990s, the parish had more than 100.
With a beaming smile, Sr. Alice said, “We are rich in our people. We are rich in diversity. We are poor financially, but we do the best we can.”
Volunteers help migrants and refugees learn English and navigate the city. Language groups meet monthly to reflect on the readings, creating a space for refugees and immigrants to share their stories with people who share the same language. Gathered together by a common experience of war, they realize they also share solidarity in their struggles. “I think that really brings unity and makes us accept each other,” said Sr. Alice.
Refugees and migrants who come to Milwaukee face difficult transitions to life in this culture and climate, and the staff and volunteers at St. Michael make a point to listen and be present with them. “We dedicate time to be there, to be present and they really appreciate that,” said Fr. Rodriguez.
Like Christ, these families have been rejected from their homeland.
“We see the faces of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in many of our families, especially our families with children,” he said. Yet, “we are very blessed.” Their faith and devotions, particularly to Mary are inspiring — “it is amazing,” Fr. Rodriguez said.
To honor the plight of such families world-wide, Pope Francis declared the last Sunday in September the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which raises “awareness to be open to the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger just as Jesus was fleeing to Egypt for very similar reasons,” Fr. Rodriguez said.
This year, the World Day of Migrants and Refugees coincides with the feast day of St. Michael: Sunday, Sept. 29.
To celebrate and honor both their patron and the day, St. Michael’s invited Very Rev. Raúl Gómez, SDS, the president-rector of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, to preside at Mass. The celebration will include a multilingual choir, drama performed by the parish youth about the Archangel, and parishioners will wear traditional ethnic dress.
Representatives from other parishes as well as members of the Archdiocesan Committee on Migrants and the Coalition for Migrants and Refugees will also attend.
Despite different native tongues and ethnic backgrounds, those who gather in prayer at St. Michael and around the world share a faith in Jesus Christ and His Church. God’s love transcends all cultural differences.
“The Holy Eucharist brings us together. A miracle happens there at the Mass,” said Fr. Rodriguez.