Priests from the homeland enhance worship experience for local Korean Catholics

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CRANSTON — Father Jaekyu Lee, better known in his parish as Father Peter J. Lee, had just walked into the St. Paul Church parish hall after Mass. A group of socializing college students turned their gaze to him in mid-conversation. An older Korean woman walked up to Father Lee and offered pleasantries.

“I love it here. Our Korean community feels part of the St. Paul Parish community. Even though we have a different language, we are one church community here,” said Father Lee, 49, the chaplain to Rhode Island’s Korean Catholic community.

Father Lee, a priest of the Diocese of Incheon in South Korea who was ordained in 2001, has been in the United States for a little over two years. His bishop sent him as a missionary priest to minister to Rhode Island’s Korean Catholics. He learned English back in South Korea well enough to celebrate Mass in that language as well.

“I was very, very nervous,” Father Lee said in describing how he felt when told that he would be coming to the United States. He had to adjust to some of the cultural and linguistic differences, but said he feels at home in Cranston.

“The culture is different, but we are all one religion,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Coventry, Father Peter Lee, 29, the assistant pastor at SS. John and Paul Church, is getting used to life in Southern New England. From the same diocese as the older Korean priest with the same last name, Father Lee arrived in Rhode Island 10 months ago.

“I hadn't imagined that I’d ever be coming to America,” he said. “I was nervous about the different life here, the different culture. But after I came here, (the worry) was all gone. It became exciting.”

Together, the two Father Lees celebrate Mass, hear confessions and lead Bible studies for a little more than three dozen Korean-Catholics who drive to Cranston from across Rhode Island every Sunday afternoon to hear Mass celebrated in their native language.

Father Jaekyu Lee is usually the one who leads the community in worship, though the younger Father Lee fills in from time to time, and frequently attends notable community holidays such as the Korean New Year and Thanksgiving, which was celebrated this year in mid-August.

“We do a potluck meal where the ladies show off their cuisine skills. We have special rice cakes and food. At Mass, the families put in the names of their deceased parents and grandparents, and we call them out to memorialize them,” said Joseph Choi, 56, a Warwick resident.

Choi, a software engineer who emigrated from South Korea about 20 years ago to pursue graduate studies in the United States, said Rhode Island’s Korean Catholic community has fluctuated in size over the years, peaking at over 100 during strong economic times but usually hovering anywhere between 35 and 50 regular Mass attendees.

“There was a little culture shock when I first came here,” said Choi, who added that he appreciates having a Korean-language Mass so that he does not have to mentally translate English into Korean while listening to a homily.

“But if it’s in Korean, I don’t have to translate,” he said. “The words go into my head, and into my heart.”

Rhode Island’s Korean Catholic community comprises many older people like Choi who have been in the United States for many years. They have settled into the local community with careers and family. The community also includes young adults who have traveled here from South Korea on student visas to study at local universities.

“It’s very important, especially for the younger generations, to have a priest who speaks Korean,” said Michael Park, 62, a retired engineer who lives in Warwick but drives to Cranston for the Korean-language Mass every Sunday.

Park, whose family arrived in New England from South Korea when he was 11, spoke with a distinctive Rhode Island accent as he recounted the history of the state’s Korean Catholic community and its early days meeting for a Korean-language Mass in private homes.

“Everybody here is from different regions in Korea,” said Park, whose family is originally from North Korea, but migrated south during the Korean War and settled in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea.

Korean Catholics in Rhode Island used to attend a Korean-language Mass at St. Mary Church in Providence until moving to St. Paul Church. Park said the community has been meeting for more than 25 years. In the early days, the community would invite Korean priests from outside Rhode Island to celebrate Mass about once a month.

“The community respects its ancestors. We seek the intercession of the Korean saints who sacrificed their lives to keep the faith alive and hold on to their traditions,” said Park, who added that Korean Catholics also take pride in the fact that their ancestors imported the faith from outside their homeland.

About 11 percent of South Korea’s population of roughly 5.8 million people are Catholic, which makes South Korea one of the most strongly Catholic countries in Asia after the Philippines.

In Rhode Island, the Korean Catholic Community meets for a Bible study on Fridays, gathers for the First Saturday devotion and Eucharistic Adoration on the last Friday of the month.

“It’s nice to have the homily and the sacraments celebrated in Korean, especially when you can have kids baptized or a young couple married in a Korean-language Mass. I think that’s important for all of us,” Park said.

Back in Coventry, Father Peter Lee — who was ordained in January 2017 — says he enjoys the fellowship and support of his older Korean priestly counterpart, who has not only helped to model life as a priest, but also life in America.

Parishioners have told the younger Father Lee that his command of the English language has improved in his time in Coventry. Their compliments and inviting attitude contradict some of the early warnings he received from priests and others back home in South Korea that Americans could be rude or self-centered.

“I’ve never seen that,” he said. “People in America are very kind. They’re very nice.”