By Kay Cozad
FORT WAYNE — The United States is one of several countries that accepts Burmese refugees, with tens of thousands of these displaced individuals flooding into American cities that offer low-cost living and jobs for non-English speakers. Fort Wayne boasts the largest Burmese population in the country with an estimated 3,800 refugees, according to the U.S. census of 2010, though local officials believe a more accurate number reaches 6,000 to 7,000. Catholics remain the minority in this population comprised mainly of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians.
According to Julie Winn, community liaison for Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ sponsored Catherine Kasper Place, there are currently 74 Catholic Burmese in Fort Wayne. These families have found assistance with job development, housing and utilities, resource location and other needs at the center and other area charitable organizations.
But their spiritual needs are another matter. And that’s where Father Peter Dee De comes in.
Born in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in 1980, Father Dee De holds a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology and was ordained into the priesthood in 2008. Recently while serving a jungle parish in Myanmar, teaching 120 children, he was invited to come to the U.S. by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades to minister to the Burmese refugee population in Fort Wayne and surrounding area.
Father Dee De has resided at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne for the past three months where he not only ministers to the Burmese with a special Mass each Sunday in their native language, but offers the sacrament of Reconciliation and catechesis for young and old alike. “Before Mass I encourage them to come to Confession. That’s really important,” says Father Dee De, who explains that the Burmese parishioners gather for social time following Sunday Mass.
Father Dee De visits the homes of his flock as well and says they are “quite united” and “well taken care of” here in Fort Wayne.
The families from Burma take turns in each others’ homes to join a family rosary recitation each weekend and Father Dee De feels that preaching and teaching is imperative for this group to grow spiritually.
“There is a need for spiritual guidance. … They have a child-like faith. They really believe, but they don’t understand their faith,” says Father Dee De, who preaches to the Burmese about the lives of saints and devotional practices of the Church during his home visits.
The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend has been identified in the ongoing influx of refugees as a place where the Catholic Church is open and welcoming. But Father Dee De’s already widespread ministry extends beyond the borders of Fort Wayne to include 250 other Burmese refugees who live in the Indianapolis area and a smaller population in Ohio and Kentucky.
“I am in charge of the Midwest,” Father Dee De says, adding that he has traveled to Minnesota and Iowa to assist with translation at Burmese weddings as well. Currently he has been traveling to Indianapolis to teach catechism to 13 young Burmese who will be baptized in August.
There are so many challenges the refugees face, but language is the most formidable barrier says Father Dee De, explaining the tribal system of his native land. “There are several tribes in Burma,” in which a different dialect is spoken. Most of the Burmese in Fort Wayne, though from West Burma where the spoken language is Chin, can speak the national Burmese language. This allows them to not only communicate with Father Dee De, who also speaks Burmese, but among themselves as well, a feat that the Karen tribes living in Indianapolis have yet to master.
Many Burmese come from Malaysia where they have been educated and know how to work. But two thirds of the Burmese come from refugee camps along the Thailand border, where their world was strictly limited.
“Their understanding is different from those outside,” says Father Dee De. “In times of faith it is difficult to teach them.”
Learning English would be most beneficial, especially for employment opportunities says, Father Dee De, who teaches his flock English when he can. “They need to speak English and get employment,” he says, noting that half the refugees are unemployed due to the language barrier.
Many make a long commute to Logansport daily to work at Tyson Foods where English is not required. “Those employed go far away and would like jobs close by,” says Father Dee De.
A portion of the Catholic Burmese children attend public schools due to transportation issues, but, notes Father Dee De, those who attend Catholic schools speak better English.
The most difficult challenge for the Burmese priest? “Even after three months here, there still is no time table,” says Father Dee De. With so many refugees to minister to in such a widespread area, scheduling for Father Dee De is still chaotic. But he feels this ministry that he has been called to is divinely led and holds hope for the spiritual growth of his people saying, “I feel the faith formation is good here.”
The best news. Delivered to your inbox.
Subscribe to our mailing list today.