June 16, 2022 | Local News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

A woman smiles while taking a picture during the 2019 National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics, which was held in Harrisburg, Pa. COURTESY OF NCBAC

More than a thousand expected to attend Burmese Catholic conference and ordination in Owensboro


This July, following a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics (NCBAC) will reunite in Owensboro, Ky., at a celebration expected to draw more than a thousand people.

Maurice Lee, president of the NCBAC, said that in 2020 they planned to hold the conference in Texas – but like so many other events, it was canceled due to the pandemic.

Lee looks forward to reconvening this year at their 11th conference, which not only keeps the faith alive for Burmese Catholics, but also provides an opportunity to foster community.

The conference will take place from July 1-4, 2022, and will be hosted by the Diocese of Owensboro.

It will be primarily attended by laypeople and priests native to Myanmar (also known as Burma) who are now living throughout the United States. Anyone, however, is welcome to attend.

“We are hoping we can have a lot of turnout for the conference,” Lee told The Western Kentucky Catholic in a phone call from his home in Maryland.

He said they expect “1,500 to 2,000” people to attend from across the country.

Mass is celebrated during the 2018 National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics, which was held in Battle Creek, Mich. COURTESY OF NCBAC

The occasion will be extra special as it will include only the second U.S. priesthood ordination of a Myanmar-born priest, Dcn. Martin Ma Na Ling, on July 2 at 10 a.m. The priesthood ordination of Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than in May 2020 was the first U.S. priesthood ordination of a Myanmar-born priest, but pandemic restrictions at the time required the Mass to be closed to the public.

“The diocese was kind enough to hold (this year’s) conference in Owensboro,” said Lee. “We are all excited to celebrate this great event.”

Western Kentucky is home to a significant number of refugees from Myanmar, according to the Kentucky Office for Refugees (KOR), a department of Catholic Charities of Louisville.

According to KOR, between 2015-2019 a total of 849 arrivals from Myanmar came to Bowling Green and a total of 460 arrivals from Myanmar came to Owensboro.

In order to serve this growing population, many of whom are Catholic, two parishes in the Owensboro diocese currently offer the opportunity for Burmese Mass: Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green and St. Pius X Parish in Owensboro.

Lee said the conference usually issues sponsorships for priests from Myanmar to travel to the U.S. for the NCBAC conference. But with the crisis of Myanmar’s February 2021 military coup and resulting turmoil, it has been difficult for the priests to obtain visas for travel to the U.S., and currently no one will be able to travel from Myanmar to attend.

“I know a lot of priests would like to come,” said Lee.

Lee said the conference expects to see a wide range of ages among attendants, from “newborns up to 80 years old!” and that families often attend the conference together.

Young people participate in the Sunday night performances at the 2018 National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics, held in Battle Creek, Mich. COURTESY OF NCBAC

Besides Burmese Masses and confession opportunities, the main focus of the conference will be on apologetics; that is, how to defend the Catholic faith. These sessions will be taught by four priests and a layperson, the latter being John Sailon, the founder of the NCBAC, who currently serves as its assistant spiritual director.

The conference will also feature cultural dancers representing multiple ethnicities from Myanmar, as well as a soccer match and “NCBAC Idol,” a competition with solo performances and group songs of Myanmar’s heritage.

Lee said traditional Burmese food will be provided for lunch and dinner, served by a cooking team that travels from New York and Pennsylvania to feed the NCBAC conference attendees every year.

While this year’s conference will take place in the heart of Owensboro, it’s actually the second time the NCBAC has been held in the Diocese of Owensboro. The fifth conference took place in Bowling Green, Ky. – which is located within the diocese’s boundaries – in 2014.

“We are really, really thankful to Bishop Medley and the Diocese of Owensboro for being willing to let us have the conference here,” said Lee.

He added his gratitude for “all the people who are helping,” including Kathy Doup, the diocese’s liaison to the conference – “who says yes to all my requests!” he added.

“Most Burmese have never seen an ordination after arriving to the U.S.,” said Lee. “Our biggest need for the Burmese Catholic people is to strengthen our spiritual needs. We have seen some Catholics lose the faith and the only way to prevent this is to educate the Burmese Catholic people.”

Learn more about the conference at https://www.ncbac.us/. 

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