A Journey ‘Up’ Memory Lane

By Fr Patrick Colgan

Fr Pat Colgan, from Northern Ireland, was based in Fiji before being elected to the General Council of the Missionary Society of St Columban. The Council members live in Hong Kong.

Fr Jehoon Lee, Bishop Francis Daw Tang, Fr Carlo Jung
at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Church, Tanghpre

As part of the first visit to Myanmar (Burma) by two newly-ordained Korean Columban priests in November 2014, Frs Carlo Jung and Jehoon Lee, who will be assigned there this year, the Bishop Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina was anxious to take us, accompanied by some Columban Sisters and a lay associate from Hong Kong, to one of the sites of the original Columban mission among the Kachin people. We drove about 45 kms north to Tanghpre, a scenic spot where the Mali and Nmai rivers form the ‘Confluence’; of the famous Irrawaddy River.

Frs Carlo and Jehoon at the confluence of the Irrawaddy

I quote the following from a Far East article of January 1962 of Fr Lawrence McMahon, a Columban from Chicago who worked in Burma from 1938 till 1972: ‘Tanghpre is a powerhouse of Columban activity. Fr Bernard Way from Melbourne runs not only a Catechists training school but also the Catholic printing press. The press, like Fr Way, is never idle. From it flows a monthly paper, the Jinghpaw Kasa (“Kachin Messenger”) plus a constant stream of Catholic books and pamphlets. The press gets it power from a diesel generator; none of us has ever been able to figure out where Fr Way gets his energy!  Like all our parishes here, Tanghpre is vast and includes a mountainous district called “Pungyin Dung” which is every bit as formidable as its name suggests; some mountain tracts here are so deep that even the Kachins call them “steep ascents that make the children cry”...’

Old church compound, Tanghpre

What struck me looking at the buildings – priest’s house, church, boarding school and printing press - all dating from the late 1930s when Columbans moved there - was how well the wood and bamboo structures had survived, but also the tragedy of their present abandonment, and that of the whole village, due to the very real possibility of the whole area being flooded due to the Myitsone Dam, a project in which China has already invested heavily, but that has been put on hold due to relentless pressure on the Myanmar government by both locals and NGOs who rightly see what devastation it would bring to the whole of the Kachin State. Many villagers have already relocated to ‘new villages’ down valley, built by the Chinese company, complete with school, church and Marian grotto! But this is nothing compared to the ecological catastrophe that would ensue if the Myanmar government eventually caves in.  Over 90 percent of the electricity produced will be going to nearby Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China.

Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Tanghpre, built by Columbans [Kachin News Group]

So this explains the empty mission in Tanghpre; most poignant, perhaps, is the fact that the original Columban priests’ rooms have been left completely intact, with books, wall pictures and even an internal coal oven/heater all slowly crumbling. I had a real sense that, at least in spirit, these brave Columbans, are still there with their people, and through their artifacts at least, ‘refusing to move’ in the face of big business.

 The Irrawaddy River at Myitkyina [Wikipedia]

We heard the stories of many other Columbans on our way back to Myitkyina, the fidelity to their people – Fr Thomas Walsh, dying from malaria at 34 in December 1945, Fr John Walsh, 43, shot through the head and found in a shallow grave in March 1964; Fr Thomas McEvoy, 56, collapsing and dying on Christmas Eve 1969 while climbing to another village to celebrate Christmas Mass. With such a foundation, this new chapter in our walk with the Kachins, will bring its own joys and tears, as together we join their long struggle for the dignity and the rights they believe that God, if not yet the Myanmar government, wills them to have.

Myitkyina – My Home Town (St Columban’s Cathedral at 2:14 and  2:20; Diocesan Centre at 2:31)