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Peer to Peer Exchange: Eastern Africa - Philippines 2019

By Bro. John Baptist Phaitoon, SDB

Chiang Mai, Thailand, 6 August 2019 -- Over the last 3 days (4-6 August) Salesian Brother John Baptist Phaitoon went on the first visit to view a possible new Salesian frontier in the Mae Hong Son mountain province in the north of Thailand, located near the Myanmar border, with beautiful green landscapes and where the population is 25% Catholic, the great majority of them from the Karen ethnic group.

As a matter of fact, in the context of a tiny minority Catholic community of Thailand (0.3% of total population nationwide), there are no less than 12,000 catechumens scattered around this Mae Hong Son province and among the top priorities of the Chiang Mai bishop Francis Xavier Vira Arpondatarana is to foster the solid education of the young people. During the past twenty years a significant portion of religious and priestly vocations have come from Chiang Mai diocese. After sharing the dream of the first Catholic school in this mountain province of Mae Hong Son, Bishop Vira has already begun some serious research and preparation in one specific location, Khun Mae Lai (a parish of 3000 Catholics with 500 catechumens scattered across 20+ mission stations not easy to reach by car).

Guided by Br. Phaitoon, the EAO regional councillor was able to visit the only mountain located Catholic school (Mae Chaem, Chiang Mai) run by the SPC Sisters (St Paul de Chartres) opened 20 years ago as a Primary Boarding School (grade 1-9) for children from many parishes around Mae Hong Son. At present 6 Sisters (three of them Karen) and 20 teachers and staff offer an excellent education to 400 boys and girls (grade 1-9).

The second day of the trip brought the two Salesians to the main venue of Khun Mae Lai, with its recently constructed and consecrated parish church and large compound of 26 rai (4 hectares) of land amidst a vibrant Catholic community. A Catholic school in this place is still some way off, but the enthusiastic and determined bishop is aware of the importance of a solid education for the vocational future of this diocese. On the evening of 6 August, the two pilgrims reached another Catholic village, Huai Ton Noon (Thai-Myanmar border), and were glad to visit family of the youngest Thai Salesian Brother, Francis Atsawim and after the English-Karen Eucharist greet many members of this dynamic parish community.

The third day started again in the Huai Ton Noon parish church with the well participated morning prayers, followed by the visit to the local public school (40+ Catholic students in grades 1-6) and a chat with some Bosconians. On the long way back to Chiang Mai, there was also a chance to visit the family of the first Karen Salesian priest, Fr. David Vichiengsang, and through another town parish in Mae Sariang to understand the life of young Catholics who come down from their native mountains for study.

At present the 5 Salesians in Chiang Mai serve the youth in Mae Rim (Diocesan Catechetical Center, 2 year course for the village catehists), in Doi Saket (Hostel for students and Aspirantate for the North of Thaialand) and Doi Siew (Agricultural Center, in the stage of development). Maybe the young people of Mae Hong Son are waiting for the Salesians!

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