Dcn. Moualee Thao of Milwaukee and his wife, Nang, helped build the Hmong Catholic International Center in Chom Thong, Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Submitted photos)

Nestled among myriad shade and fruit trees, with coconuts at an arm’s length from one of the windows, the Hmong Catholic International Center demonstrates a great amount of care in its construction, replete with handmade coffee tables and benches sliced from trees and sanded to perfection.

Exquisite religious paintings adorn the chapel walls, and a grotto of the Blessed Mother is located at one of the entrances to the center. Large concrete walls with crosses on top lead the way to a paved walkway with steps guiding visitors to the Center, which is surrounded by ornate tile. An outdoor barbecue pit offers ample room for large events. Lush fenced-in farmland provides space for gardens and animals. Barns on the property house pigs, chickens and geese. Numerous beehives on the grounds add to the center’s self-sustainability.

This Center is the result of dreams that Dcn. Moualee Thao and his wife, Nang, imagined for years when they thought of building the Hmong Catholic International Center. Construction began in 2017 for the Center in Chom Thong, Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the project was completed in 2020.

The goal of the center is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Hmong in Thailand, Laos, China and Vietnam. The residential facility provides shelter, meetings, training, retreats and educational resources.

With the Center completed, Dcn. Thao, who serves St. Michael Parish in Milwaukee, said a grand opening is scheduled for Jan. 14.

“We had planned to have it in January 2021, but due to travel constraints from COVID-19, we had to reschedule the event,” he said. “We will have morning Mass presided by the Bishop of Chiang Mai, Thailand. After Mass, the bishop will give a speech. After lunch, we will have a faith-sharing session for each community, sports competitions, social activities and more.”

Dcn. Thao and Nang were compelled to build this center to help provide housing for the poor, strengthen the Catholic faith and provide educational resources for Hmong Catholics, other Christians and non-Christians, as well.

“We especially wanted to reach out to the Thai minority communities and non-Christian communities,” Dcn. Thao said. “We want to bring hope to those who are hopeless.”

The need for a Hmong Catholic International Center is great and Dcn. Thao understands the plight of the impoverished in Thailand, himself a former Hmong refugee from Laos.

“No one was willing to act to build this center because of so many financial difficulties,” he said. “Fortunately, my wife and I were blessed by the Lord and led by the Holy Spirit, so we were able to self-fund about 90 percent of this Center.”

Currently, three catechists are living in the Center full time with approximately 10 students. Dcn. Thao said the entire facility can hold 300 for a large-scale event such as a New Year’s celebration, sporting event or wedding.

“Because we have a big open soccer field that can hold up to 1,000 people, we can have even larger gatherings,” he said.

Surrounding the Center are rich farmlands, gardens, ponds and room for the animals they raise. Dcn. Thao said they raise and sell the animals to make a small profit that helps operate the Center.

“We also don’t want to depend on asking for funds from other organizations year after year,” he said. “So, our ultimate goal for this center is to be self-sufficient, which is why we raise animals, as they are part of our source of income.”

There is a lot of excitement surrounding the upcoming grand opening celebration, said Dcn. Thao. He added that before the pandemic, he and his wife traveled to Thailand at least twice a year, and he plans to travel there more often to help serve and keep the Center moving forward to achieve its purpose.

“As of today, 99 percent of the people here cannot wait for the celebration and beyond, especially Hmong Catholics in Thailand and Vietnam,” Dcn. Thao said. “I estimate that more than 20 people from Milwaukee and another 20-25 from Wausau, Green Bay and Appleton will visit or join us for the grand opening.”