Missionary for life with immigrant community in the United States

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Sister Michaela O’Connor, a Holy Family religious sister, embodies her founder’s dream of healing hearts and saving the souls of those she encounters along the way, as she serves the Kmhmu’ community in the US state of California.

By Charlotte Hall

Sister Michaela O’Connor keeps the stories of the Bible alive in the hearts of the Kmhmu’ community in Richmond, California. She is their favorite teacher, their friend, their confidant. Many of the older Kmhmu’ cannot read, so they often turn to Sister Michaela and eagerly beg her, “Tell us a Bible story!”

Finding welcome

Sister Michaela first became acquainted with the Kmhmu’ in the early 1990s when she was working for the Oakland Diocese. Although the Diocese had an Office for Ethnic Populations, the Kmhmu’ felt lost in the structure, since they were such a small group with no common language with other ethnic groups. They turned to the Diocese for help because they were concerned about how to pass their faith on to their children.

Caption: After Mass Sister Michaela makes sure she talks to everyone so she knows what is happening in the lives of Kmhmu’ immigrants.

After Mass Sister Michaela makes sure she talks to everyone so she knows what is happening in the lives of Kmhmu’ immigrants

After Mass Sister Michaela makes sure she talks to everyone so she knows what is happening in the lives of Kmhmu’ immigrants

From her first meeting with them, Sister Michaela felt drawn to them. “They are gentle, loving people, with strong family and community values, and are very welcoming. I wanted so much to help them, but the Office of Religious Education was being re-structured, and I didn’t know what I could promise them.” Sister Michaela began meeting informally with the Kmhmu’ women one night a week as a volunteer, and has been with them ever since.

Who are the Kmhmu’?

The Kmhmu’ are from the hills of Laos and were neglected by the government for years. French and Italian missionaries had introduced them to Christianity in the mid 1900s. They had tried to create a written form of their language, but it was never really adopted. No education was available to them unless they left their home in the hills. Furthermore, classes were held in Lao, a language they did not know. Consequently, very few Kmhmu’ learned to read.

Why the Kmhmu’ left Laos

When the communists took over Laos in the mid-1970s, the Kmhmu’ were persecuted because of their religion. Those that could fled to other countries. Thus, in the early 1980s, a small number of Kmhmu’ refugees settled in Richmond, CA to build a new life for their families. They arrived there knowing very little about American life, and most of them could not speak any English. They naturally turned to the Church for help, and Sister Michaela came into their lives.

Sister Michaela listens intently as a woman asks her for advice

Sister Michaela listens intently as a woman asks her for advice

An advocate for the integration process

Eventually Sister Michaela became their full-time Parish Sister. At first, the Diocese supported her position. When that funding was no longer available, her community, the Sisters of the Holy Family, continued to support Sister Michaela as a missionary to the Kmhmu’ for decades. True to the missionary spirit, Sister Michaela tended to all the needs of her people – spiritual, physical, emotional. She did whatever she could to help make their lives better.

“I have done all kinds of social work that I was never trained to do, including immigration work, helping with food stamps and other government programs, getting scholarships for the kids. And I have filled out forms of all kinds. Since the Kmhmu’ don’t have a written language, doing paperwork doesn’t come naturally for them.”

Members of the Kmhmu’ community turned to Sister Michaela over and over as they strove to assimilate into life in the United States. Sister Michaela has rejoiced with them, cried with them, and nurtured their love of Christ. As much as the Kmhmu’ love their new country, they have also kept their traditional culture and customs alive.

Sister Michaela and two Kmhmu’ leaders: Manh Phongboupha (right), and Chomkeo Maneevorn, President and Vice-President of the Kmhmu’ Pastoral Center Council

Sister Michaela and two Kmhmu’ leaders: Manh Phongboupha (right), and Chomkeo Maneevorn, President and Vice-President of the Kmhmu’ Pastoral Center Council

Ongoing adaptation

The Kmhmu’ community was recently invited by Bishop Barber to move from the large parish they had been part of for decades to a new smaller parish, Saint David of Wales. It has been a wonderful fit for them. They have been welcomed into the parish and have made many new connections, while also remaining a group on their own, having their own Parish Council and Mass in their own language.

There are now new generations of Kmhmu’ who have grown up in the United States and do not need help assimilating into the culture. Yet even they are anxious for Sister Michaela to be with them as much as possible. Since 2021 Sister Michaela’s official ministry has been on the leadership team of Sisters of the Holy Family. Even though her official ministry is no longer directed to them, she is still devoted to the Kmhmu’ and spends time with them as a “volunteer”. Almost every Saturday, she makes the hour-long drive to be with them for Mass and socializing.

Kmhmu’ women wearing handmade outfits all want their photo taken with Sister Michaela

Kmhmu’ women wearing handmade outfits all want their photo taken with Sister Michaela

Caring for families, both spiritually and practically is the charism that has embodied the Sisters of the Holy Family since 1872. San Francisco’s Archbishop Joseph S. Alemany told their foundress, Sister Dolores, “There are hearts to heal, and souls to save in our busy city street. This is the work God wants you to do.” And like hundreds of her Sisters before her, Sister Michaela takes the love of Jesus Christ to the people where they are. For her this has been in a small corner of Richmond, California where she and the Kmhmu’ have developed a bond of love and trust that will last their lifetimes.

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