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Missionhurst priests and brothers celebrate 75 years in Arlington

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In an increasingly multicultural society, ethnic and racial tensions often arise. But a group of international missionaries with long ties to the Arlington diocese stands as a witness to universal brotherhood.

“It’s possible for a brother who does not look like me, who does not eat like me, it’s possible to live together. Our community gives witness to that,” said Missionhurst Father Celso Tabalanza, superior of the U.S. province of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, whose U.S. operations have been based at the Missionhurst property in Arlington for 75 years.

Some are called to be missionaries — to get out of our comfort zones, to leave our families and cultures behind in order to bring the good news to other people and to discover the presence of God already there in other people." Missionhurst Father Celso Tabalanza, superior of the U.S. province of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

The order was founded in Belgium in 1862 by Father Theophile Verbist for the evangelization of China. Because the order is based in Scheut, Anderlecht, a suburb of Brussels, they are  sometimes called the Scheut Missionaries, but in the United States, they are mostly known as Missionhurst-CICM. CICM stands for Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariæ.

Today, the order has 780 priests and brothers serving around the globe, including 36 in three U.S. dioceses: Arlington, Raleigh, N.C., and San Antonio, Texas. Many will be at Missionhurst in Arlington for an anniversary Mass Oct. 7 celebrated by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, and an anniversary dinner timed to coincide with their annual retreat.

“When we become CICM, we bear witness to fraternal brotherhood,” Father Tabalanza said, noting that seven nationalities are represented in the U.S. province alone: Canadian, American, Zambian, Filipino, Congolese, Indonesian and Belgian.

Just as some men are called by God to serve the church as parish priests, Father Tabalanza said, “some are called to be missionaries — to get out of our comfort zones, to leave our families and cultures behind in order to bring the good news to other people and to discover the presence of God already there in other people. We believe God is already there, and he is calling us to continue what he has already started, in so many different ways.”

MISSIONARIES IN CHINA 

The life of the early CICM missionaries in China was not easy; many died during China’s Boxer Rebellion, a violent anti-foreign, anti-Christian uprising from 1899-1901. The term Boxer refers to the leaders of the rebellion, who practiced Chinese martial arts, which English-speakers at the time referred to as “Chinese boxing.”

During World War II, the order sent Father Ernest Dieltiens to the United States to seek financial support for the China missions and to find new areas of ministry. He arrived Jan. 1, 1944, and soon the order established a permanent mission. In April 1946, he bought the 11-acre property called Lyonhurst, on what is now North 25th Street in Arlington.

The Spanish Mission-style stucco house, built in 1907, had been the family home of Frank Lyon, an early real estate developer in the county. The name was changed from Lyonhurst to Missionhurst — “hurst” is an old English word for hill or small wooded rise, which aptly describes the park-like property that now also holds a retreat house, offices and a chapel. A residence for retired priests is just outside the front entrance, which leads to a large circular drive where neighbors with children and dogs can be seen strolling among the blooming plants. The main residence still looks much the same as in historic photos. Father Tabalanza noted that the small stone lions flanking the front door were kept for their historical interest.

In 1946, 16 missionaries arrived from Brussels, mostly to work in African American ministry in the Archdioceses of Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. Later that year, two priests were sent to minister at Precious Blood Church in Culpeper, where the order remained until 2016. Today, Missionhurst priests staff St. Ann Church in Arlington and the Mt. Tabor community in Vienna, in addition to Missionhurst.

After the order decided to expand the CICM presence in the United States in the late 1940s, many more missionaries arrived. During the first 40 years, most came from Belgium and Holland; lately, most have come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as Brazil and Guatemala.

“A lot of us actually were inspired by missionaries coming from Europe to evangelize us,” said Father Tabalanza, a Filipino. “We asked ‘Why can’t we do the same thing?’ ”  

Although the order’s initial focus was China, the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 resulted in missionaries being expelled and U.S. diplomatic ties with China were cut. The order redirected its efforts to other countries, including the United States.

SERVING CHURCH NEEDS 

Over the years, its way of doing mission work has evolved to meet the needs of the places CICM priests serve. In Europe today, that may mean focusing less on parish ministry and more on Muslim-Christian dialog and outreach to new immigrants. In the United States, it increasingly means focusing on ministry to Hispanic communities, so CICMs have become experts in Hispanic ministry, said Father Tabalanza, who served in Texas before coming to Virginia.

“One of our CICM charisms is to be able to serve the needs of our local church. If a bishop calls and says, ‘I really need you to do this type of work,’ we serve,” he said.

“We are multicultural, so we are able to reach out to other multicultural communities,” he added. “Ourselves being a stranger, being an immigrant in this country, it’s a lot easier for us to empathize with other cultural groups just coming into the country or who feel lost.”  

Father Tabalanza said CICM missionaries include not just priests but brothers from many professional backgrounds, such as medical doctors, educators, engineers and lawyers. He mentioned Dr. Jerry Galloway, a U.S. medical doctor who, after being in the Peace Corps, became a Missionhurst brother and served the Pygmy tribe in the Congo for 27 years.

Father Tabalanza knows well that being a missionary today can be just as dangerous as it was when the CICM founders went to China in the late 1800s. When he was a missionary in the Congo soon after his ordination, he was taken hostage by rebels during the country’s civil wars in the late 1990s. Later, he was held by the army, who, when they learned he was a U.S. citizen, accused him of working for the CIA.

The experiences were traumatic, but they tested and purified his faith, like a gold refining process, he wrote in a 2010 book  (My Years in Africa: Crossing the Eye of a Stormy Mission, published by CICM Missionaries), written at the suggestion of a trauma counselor who thought the writing process would be therapeutic.

Today, when he is asked to speak to seminarians about the realities of missionary life amid global unrest and political change, he doesn’t sugarcoat the risk. “Violence is a reality, this is missionary life,” he said. “I tell them it’s not all roses, there are also thorns.”

Despite the dangers, God is still calling young men to become missionaries.

The Missionhurst-CICMs celebrated two ordinations this year, one in the Diocese of Raleigh and one in San Antonio. And a parishioner of St. Ann Church in Arlington, Mark Joyce, recently became a Missionhurst seminarian, inspired by the priests serving his parish.

“For many years, we had a drought in vocations, but we have one for the 75th year, and it is a great blessing,” Father Tabalanza said.

Find out more

Visit missionhurst.org or call 703/528-3800.



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021