Four decades of Southeast Asian immigrants find home in Syracuse
by luke eggleston
sun staff writer
Since the early 1970s, St. John the Evangelist Parish in Syracuse has been a destination for Catholic refugees and immigrants as they
arrived in Central New York.
The tenure of Sister Judy Howley, CSJ, at St. John the Evangelist has paralleled the expansion of the Southeast Asian population at the parish.
For several years, Sister Judy had been the principal at St. Brigid and St. Joseph School in Syracuse, which has since closed. After that, she was relocated to St. Andrew the Apostle Parish. Before coming to Syracuse, Sister Judy had served the poor in Troy, N.Y., a ministry that she missed, so she requested a move to St. John the Evangelist.
“I decided I wanted to work in a poorer neighborhood. So there was an opening at St. John the Evangelist and so I accepted it. I wanted to help people,” Sister Judy said.
St. John the Evangelist is in the merger process with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Sister Judy arrived at St. John the Evangelist in 1972. A few years earlier, the parish had sponsored the relocation of Laotian immigrants. Because of their cultural commonalities with the Laotians, along with the parish’s proximity to St. Joseph’s Health and Hospital Center, St. John the Evangelist was a natural fit for the Vietnamese refugees. Following the Vietnamese, there was an influx of Amerasians to the Syracuse area. More recently, the parish community at St. John the Evangelist has opened its doors to Burmese refugees.
“Because we had started resettling refugees on the north side and we had access to St. Joseph’s Hospital, then when other parishes resettled them, they found places for them on the north side. That’s how the population grew on the north side,” Sister Judy said.
Roughly 400 Vietnamese attend Mass celebrated in their own language at 11 a.m. each Sunday at St. John the Evangelist.
Sister Judy said that despite working closely with the Southeast Asian population through her Asian Apostolate, she has never learned Vietnamese or Laotian or Burmese simply because of the difficulty of mastering so many different languages.
“I don’t because if I learn one language, I would have to learn them all,” Sister Judy said.
However, Sister Judy said that communication has never been a problem for her.
“I don’t know how we did it, but I never had any problems,” she said. “You just sort of learn how to communicate.”
In addition, most Southeast Asian immigrants are eager to learn English when they arrive in the U.S. Over the past three decades, Sister Judy has developed a strong appreciation of the Southeast Asian parishioners because of their enthusiasm, which also reflects a strong work ethic.
“It’s been a wonderful experience. They’re just wonderful people,” she said. “When they came in, they were willing to go to the English as a Second Language class and they were willing to go to work. Most of all of them have held down jobs since they’ve come.”
Since 1990, the Southeast Asian parishioners have had the benefit of a priest who celebrates Mass in Vietnamese because of an arrangement with the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, a Vietnamese order based at a monastery of the same name in Carthage, Mo.
The order’s most recent representative at the parish is Father Joseph Thanh-Canh, CMC, who came to Syracuse three years ago. Father Joseph previously ministered in the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif. Father Joseph’s stint in Syracuse will end in July and Sister Judy expects that Father Thienan Tran will take over for him. Father Tran was ordained a Syracuse diocesan priest in 2005. He is currently the parochial vicar at St. Daniel in Lyncourt.
Father Joseph, who entered the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix in 1964, said he has been moved by the spirituality of the Southeast Asian population at St. John the Evangelist.
“They are good people and they have a deep faith,” Father Joseph said.
Most of the Vietnamese Catholics in Syracuse fled their homeland because of religious persecution.
“They leave our country because they have no freedom and then they come here for the religious freedom,” Father Joseph said. “They come here to keep their Catholic faith.”
Sister Judy added that many of the more recent arrivals have come because their families have relocated to the U.S.
“We’ve had a lot of family reunifications this year,” she said.
St. John the Evangelist offers several programs for its Vietnamese population. Sister Judy oversees an after-school program with student tutors from Christian Brothers Academy as well as five professional teachers and a summer program in which young people have an opportunity to study and play.
She said that Southeast Asian adults are very active in the parish’s Legion of Mary and its Sacred Heart Society.
One of the highlights of the summer is the parish’s Southeast Asian Festival at Webster School on Aug. 16. Sister Judy said that the participants sing and dance and Southeast Asian food is featured at the event.
“It’s to keep their culture alive,” Sister Judy said.