“It can be said that the history of Christianity is a history of immigration— as with Abraham, the father of faith, and the history of Israel’s immigration,” said Fr. Suyoung Abraham Ruy, MSC.
Fr. Ruy certainly understands the intertwined experiences of Christianity and immigration. As the pastor of the designated personal parish for Korean Catholics, St. Mary Magdalen in Milwaukee, he serves a community of Korean-Americans who sometimes travel great distances to be able to worship in their own language and be immersed in their own culture.
The year 2020 marks a significant anniversary for this community — 40 years since Korean Catholic immigrants in Milwaukee invited Fr. Morty Kelly to hold Mass in a local taekwondo gym. A Columban priest, Fr. Kelly had been ministering to Korean Catholics in the Chicago area after learning the language as a missionary in Korea. The growing number of Korean Catholics in the Milwaukee area finally received their own priest, the Jesuit Fr. Kim Jeong Woong, in 1981.
Over the past four decades, a dozen more priests, Fr. Ruy included, have shepherded the community at various locations, including the St. Joan of Arc Chapel on the Marquette University campus, St. James in Franklin, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Kenosha, St. John Nepomuk in Racine and Gesu Parish in Milwaukee. The community established a long-term home at St. Mary Magdalen on Windlake Avenue and, in 2011, received permission from Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki to establish a “personal parish” for Korean Catholics at the church.
“Traditionally, most parishes are divided into ‘territories,’ meaning that each parish serves a particular region, with parishioners attending the parish located nearest their area,” read an archdiocesan press release from 2011. “By becoming a personal parish, St. Mary Magdalen is open to anyone in the Korean Catholic community regardless of their location.”
Around 100 faithful are registered at the parish, said Fr. Ruy, who added that he believes there are probably between 300 and 400 Korean Catholics in Milwaukee. Families and individuals travel from as far as Green Bay to attend Mass at St. Mary Magdalen.
Parishioner Hyun-Sook Son has been a member for 32 years. He described St. Mary Magdalen as “a small but inclusive community” who “welcomes anyone interested in the Catholic faith.”
“St. Mary Magdalene gave us this sense of familiarity and belonging,” he said. “Since Mass is spoken in Korean, it helps us to fully comprehend the word of the Lord, as well as help us think critically of how to spread our faith around us.”
Jinne Maria Chung has been a parishioner for 26 years, and she said the community provided her with support and comfort during some very difficult periods of her life.
“This church is like a home to me,” she said. She first came to the community as a young mother, divorced from a financially neglectful husband and forced to work long hours six days a week to support her sons, then aged 3 and 7.
“The church has given me peace and comfort spiritually,” she said. She was baptized there, along with her sons, and now serves as a trustee. “I believe that this Korean community church is the place where Korean immigrants with difficulties in their life would come for comfort,” she said.
Currently all events at the parish, aside from Mass, have been canceled due to COVID-19, but in normal times, the community keeps a robust calendar that includes Gospel meditation, Bible studies, Holy Hours on First Fridays and First Saturdays, and a partnership with a nearby parish for cursillo and other ministries. In the year of Mercy, 2016, Fr. Ruy directed a translation of the Psalms and New Testament.
The parish has few staff and, aside from Fr. Ruy, is led mostly by volunteers. “When I started in 2013, the rectory, chapel and parking lot were in a very run-down state,” he said. “Parishioners would come after work to help paint the church, clear the snow, and help with many other things around the church. With their help, we were able to replace the walls and the church roof.”
On Jan. 1, 2016, the parish suffered a terrible blow when a leak was discovered in the ceiling, soaking the tabernacle. “I was in such a shock; people had to help move me into another room due to the state I was in,” said Fr. Ruy. “Everyone came together to help clean up while holding back their tears. I think that was a real turning point for our community.”
Catholics account for about 10 percent of the population in Korea, a figure that has doubled in the past 20 years. “The beginning of the Korean Catholic Church is evaluated as special within the Roman Catholic Church. It did not start with the missionaries, but rather the believers themselves accepted Catholicism and God,” explained Fr. Ruy.
In 1784, Korean nobleman Yi-Seung-Hun converted to Catholicism while visiting China, and brought the Church’s teachings back to his homeland. Catholics in Korea were initially the victims of religious persecution for objecting to ancestor worship, a century-long ordeal that resulted in many martyrs.
“Korean Catholic immigrants are the descendants of such martyrs,” said Fr. Ruy. “Korean Catholic immigrants in Milwaukee knew that the Church was a place to give them comfort. The Church was the only place that could give Korean Catholic immigrants a religious and ethnical identity and a place that allowed them to connect to their Korean roots.”