WETHERSFIELD – The congregation of the close-knit, but far-flung, Korean Catholic Community of Connecticut (KCCC) “goes the distance” to share faith, culture and fellowship. Members travel from 35 locales across Connecticut and the Springfield, Mass., area to attend Korean-language Mass in Sacred Heart Church.
For nearly 40 years, the group has moved from church to church and town to town to meet its growth needs or those of a host parish. The only such group in Connecticut, and one of few in the New York-Boston area, the KCCC began with a handful of families at St. Mary’s in New Haven in 1978, relocated in the mid-’80s to St. Lawrence in West Haven and moved in 2001 to Wethersfield.
Gathering to preserve Korean culture and Korean Catholic tradition has been a challenge and a joy, they say. Humbly expressing gratitude for hospitality and welcome throughout the journey, they embrace the dream of a uniquely Korean home one day within the Archdiocese of Hartford.
Getting close to God in their native language is the foundation of the community. They find peace and comfort in Mass and music imbued with Korean Catholic tradition, in Bible study that touches hearts and minds, and in easy conversation while sharing traditional foods.
The familiar parish invitation to “coffee and conversation” translates into “kim-chee and conversation” after Mass for the KCCC, not just once a month, but every week. And no one’s in a hurry to leave. Making Sunday gatherings a day-long event, they enjoy a Korean buffet, conduct religious education classes and hold prayer groups. Nor is there a rush for the door at day’s end, when ping pong tables replace buffet tables for spirited play.
Steve Keedle, a convert to Catholicism who is married to a Korean Catholic, expressed the sentiments of several KCCC families. “It’s about the beauty of the Mass … Our boys attend here also. I think it’s very important that they appreciate and understand as I do the Catholic worship in the Korean way, to understand their background, where they come from, and to appreciate the culture in the way we celebrate. That’s why I want to continue coming here with my family, hoping that when they’re older they’ll do the same, as well.” The Keedles reside in Trumbull.
Jooyean Choi, vice principal of the Sunday school, said a significant achievement of the group has been the religious education program, now with about 50 children, ages 3 through high school. Student activities combine religious education with Korean culture on such occasions as Korean Thanksgiving (Choo Suk) and the first full moon day.
The KCCC has evolved into a vibrant and multigenerational congregation of over 200. Organized into nine regional districts of seven to 10 families, these subgroups form the backbone of the community. Each hosts Bible studies attended by their priest in members’ homes and shares preparation of the Sunday buffet. Making that important meal happen every week is central to the communications work of KCCC’s head of the district managers, Jin Kyung Kim. The proprietor of a sushi restaurant in New Haven, she is well-suited for this task.
Ms. Kim and Wan Kyun Ham, vice president of the church council, credit many volunteers for the success of every week’s events, at the church and in the districts. Effective communication is key, and they use both a social network and the telephone, as needed.
KCCC’s senior members attribute its success to the high percentage of volunteers who have served within each district and on the church and financial councils, the media team and the parish advancement committee. It is the latter that continues to provide focus and impetus toward the group’s dream of one day having its own home.
They hope with patience and the resolve of both hindsight and foresight. Thus, they plan in the manner of the 100 or so similarly sized Korean Catholic communities founded during the same years, many of which have harbored, and later realized, the same dream.
Korean Catholic communities started to form on the west coast in the late 1970s, at the same time the KCCC formed in the Archdiocese of Hartford. Here on the east coast as well as on the west, Koreans who had emigrated to the United States for advanced study and work in technical and specialized professions were often unable to engage with countrymen and -women in worship and fellowship. As a result they experienced isolation and loneliness.
Such an experience was related by retired Professor Kue Un Choi, the most senior member of the KCCC and retired Professor Emeritus of Economics from the University of Bridgeport. He recalled an experience from the first day of his arrival in 1957 as a graduate student. He found himself to be “the only Asian in the packed school chapel,” where he had gone to “thank my Lord” for the opportunity to come here to study. “Can you imagine?” he asked. “I felt so alone in this large company of worshippers.”
Dr. Choi credits the impact of this nearly 60-year-old memory for much of his effort to help the KCCC acquire a dedicated home.
The KCCC’s prayerful 14-year wait to realize its dream of having a Korean priest to celebrate Mass in their native tongue testifies to the community’s resolve and patience.
That dream materialized in 1992 when arrangements between the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Archdiocese of Seoul, South Korea, resulted in the arrival of the first Korean-speaking priest-chaplain for the community. Thus began the succession of priests for five-year assignments; Father Nicholas Chul Lee is the most recent.
Ordained in Seoul in 1997, Father Lee arrived in 2013. He is a gifted composer and instrumentalist whose works are performed at every Mass and his contemporary Christian music appears on nine solo albums and many collaborations.
Although renting at Sacred Heart, the KCCC purchased a house near the church for use as a rectory. Parish Advancement Committee members, recalling their own early experiences of isolation far from home, noted that over the years some of their Korean priests were not happy; some even returned to Korea.
Within the past few years, for the comfort and well-being of their priest, they conducted an overwhelmingly successful fund-raising effort that enabled them to purchase their own rectory. This step represented a milestone toward the long-range plans of the community.
Several members of the Parish Advancement Committee addressed plans to establish closer ties to the archdiocese.
Information is available at http://ctkoreancatholic.com.