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Burmese immigrants build shrine to Mary

Completed in time for Nativity of Mary; celebrated Sept. 8

By Jenna Feeney
Special to The Witness

WATERLOO — Over the past several years, Sacred Heart Parish in Waterloo has welcomed hundreds of Burmese refugees into its church and community. In July 2015, the parish and its pastor, Father Kenneth Stecher, welcomed Father Luigi Htya Ruh, an ethnically Burmese priest, to be the new associate pastor at Sacred Heart to help minister to the growing needs of the Burmese community and the entire parish.

With encouragement from Fathers Stecher and Htya Ruh and the rest of the parish, the Burmese community at Sacred Heart recently planned, built and dedicated a shrine to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary next to the church and rectory. D Phoe Ei, a leader within the community, initiated the effort. Henry Pettanet helped direct the construction.

The total cost for building the shrine was $3,500, not including labor. Many from the Burmese community supported the project, both with financial contributions and the donation of labor, with many members of the community working at no cost from 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. every day for two weeks to complete the project.

Parishioners wanted to ensure the new shrine was completed by Sunday, Sept. 4, the day Sacred Heart would celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (a Sept. 8 feast day special to many Catholics, including Burmese Catholics, that commemorates the birth of Mary). At Sacred Heart, the day is celebrated with a liturgical procession around the block, Mass in Burmese, praying the rosary as a community, and a large meal that is eaten together. This year also included the dedication and blessing of the newly built shrine.

Each church in Burma has a shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother where people can go to pray, and there was a strong desire among members of the local Burmese community to replicate this important feature at their new church in Waterloo.

“[Everyone] can come over to the shrine for free to pray and honor Mary at any time,” Father Htya Ruh said.

“Burmese people love to pray the rosary. … It is a sign of unity for the Burmese community to come together to pray the rosary,” explained Ivan Saw Soe Myint, a leader within the community at Sacred Heart.

The Burmese community has been praying the rosary together inside the church every Sunday for several years but now looks forward to the opportunity to be able to pray together at the shrine. The months of October and May are especially devoted to Mary and the rosary.

The new shrine at Sacred Heart has a concrete foundation and a stone exterior. Concrete sidewalks were poured leading up to the shrine, so people can walk up to it to pray. The design of the shrine was based on shrines found in Burma. Many of the people at Sacred Heart have experience in building from before they fled Burma.

The community hopes to finish landscaping in the spring and pour more concrete, so there is a larger space for a group to pray together. Various members of the community have already been helping to keep the shrine decorated and beautiful.

Myint said, “Anybody from the community is welcome to come and pray any time. … We are a family even though we come from different countries.”

He also expressed a heartfelt desire that other parishes will be inspired to build a shrine for Mary, as well.

The entire Burmese community is grateful to Fathers Stecher and Htya Ruh for allowing them to build the shrine next to Sacred Heart Church.

“This has been quite a journey,” Father Stecher said. “Four years ago there were 10 Burmese families here, and now we have about 150. About 60% of our school families are Burmese. It has been a journey of incorporating them in our parish. We are publishing a new directory this fall that will include our Burmese families; both this and the shrine are symbols of their involvement and incorporation into our parish. Our parish has done a lot to help them, but they have also been a blessing to our parish in many ways.”

Feeney is director of music and liturgy coordinator of Sacred Heart Parish in Waterloo.

(l to r) Rosa; Father Ken Stecher, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Waterloo; Noreen Nyein Nyein Aye; Ivan Saw Soe Myint; Father Luigi Htya Ruh, associate pastor; and Matae on Sept. 4 in front of the shrine. (Contributed photo)