A place to feel whole

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Maria Lee moved from South Korea to the United States when she was 14, serving as a translator for her parents when the family arrived in their adopted country. Maria, who considers herself a Korean, an American and a Catholic, is grateful for a home that embraces and nurtures each integral part of her. 

That home is St. Paul Chung in Fairfax, which, as a national parish, brings together Koreans from every corner of the Arlington Diocese. National parishes are established to serve immigrant communities and are not defined by geography.

Maria's parents were part of a wave of immigrants that came to the United States in the 1960s and '70s after the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the quota system that had limited the number of Asians allowed into the county.

"My parents, like many others, came for my generation, for better economic opportunities," said Maria.

Koreans in the Washington, D.C., area worshipped at St. Andrew Kim Korean Catholic Church in Olney, Md., before St. Paul Chung was established as a mission in 1986 in response to Northern Virginia's growing Korean Catholic community, according to Bernard Noh, a longtime parishioner and president of the parish council. Father Simon Yong Sik Park came from South Korea's Wonju Diocese to guide the mission.

Although no longer commuting to Maryland, the St. Paul faithful shuffled from parish to parish, celebrating the sacraments at St. Bernadette in Springfield, St. John the Beloved in McLean and St. Lawrence in Alexandria before they purchased land in 1995 for a permanent home in Fairfax. The following year, on Jan. 22, the late Arlington Bishop John R. Keating elevated St. Paul to parish status, with Father Simon Hyunman Shin as founding pastor.

Due to the parish's extensive geographic region, the diocese is divided into 50 smaller Korean Catholic communities that gather regularly for Bible study and other spiritual enrichment.

Like the parish patron - a lay leader credited with establishing the Korean Catholic Church in the 19th century and martyred at age 45 - parishioners' zealous faith, organizational skills and hard work have shaped a parish that works to serve both the spiritual and social needs of parishioners.

St. Paul is "not just a worship place; it's a gathering place where we can all share our culture, our friendship and our language," said Moon Kim, a parishioner and assistant facilities manager for the diocesan Office of Planning, Construction and Facilities. Kim estimates 50 percent of parishioners speak only Korean.

Perhaps the most extensive way the parish cultivates friendship and preserves culture is through the education and cultural center, the vision of Father Peter Hoin Kwak, St. Paul's fourth and current pastor.

Click here to read more about the education and cultural center.

Father Kwak was preceded by Fathers Francisco Xavier Soonshin Park, 1998-2003, and Thaddeus Yongsung Kim, 2003-07.

Directed by Bong Lee, one of the original parishioners, the center includes a Korean school for the younger generation, an adult school for the older generation and television program.

"The second and third generation, they were forgetting the language, culture and history," said Father Kwak through a translator.

"Even if (St. Paul) becomes an English-speaking church someday, we want to keep the culture," Bong said. "That's the goal for the future."

The center also helps older generations adapt to U.S. culture, added Bong.

The Korean school, under the guidance of Sister Anna Nam, principal, offers music, art, language and cultural classes.

The adult school, with Juliana Kim as director, provides yoga classes, recreational activities, basic English and citizenship classes.

Both schools use either the Hasang Youth Center, which includes 13 classrooms and a gym, or in the multipurpose hall, with 10 additional rooms.

The TV program, produced for free on a local community station, includes documentaries and lectures with a Catholic focus - most from Korea - and two parish-created shows.

On "Ask Sister Anna," Sister Anna answers questions "Koreans often ask," she said. Past shows have addressed why Catholics venerate Mary and why Jesus' birth is celebrated Dec. 25.

During the second segment, "Meditations at Midnight," Father Kwak reflects on a spiritual theme.

Eager to utilize all media to enlighten and evangelize, the parish has a bimonthly newspaper, edited by Sister Gratia Song, who lives with Sister Anna in a convent across the street from the parish.

Sisters Anna and Gratia, both Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres from the Seoul

Province, assist with religious education, the Legion of Mary and the senior group, among other ministries.

From the education and cultural center to the small groups to Sundays - "when everyone spends most of the day at the parish," according to Kim - St. Paul offers a place where Korean-Americans can feel most themselves.

"No matter what problems people have during the week, they can come here and talk about it," said Noh. "For some people it's the only place they can come where they can fully express themselves and feel understood."

And this is true not only for first- and second-generation Koreans. Third-generation Koreans are very much American, but they are also Korean, said Maria.

"Out there in their social life they mingle with Americans, but inside them they are Korean-Americans. So when they come here they feel more whole, more fully who they are," Maria said.

Although parishioners celebrate their dual heritage, it's clear what the biggest focus is. The Faith is paramount, according to Sister Gratia. "We are Catholics first," she said.

Another major focus for Father Kwak, assisted by Father Kim Jeong-Ha, parochial vicar, and Deacon Paul Hyo-June Lee, is creating a spirit of caring and tolerance.

Father Kwak acknowledges that it's not easy living in a new society, and Korean-Americans have, like all immigrants, suffered the pain of intolerance. He nevertheless encourages them to bring love and openness to one another and to the world.

Last month, St. Paul celebrated 15 years as a parish and 25 years since it was named a mission. Amid the festivities, there was a call to look outward.

For the past 25 years, there's been a focus on serving the St. Paul community, said Noh. Now there will be an emphasis on service that extends beyond it, he said.

The first major project will be to assist a parish in Peru. Father Kwak visited last year to discern the parish's acute needs, and now St. Paul is deciding how it can best meet those needs, said Noh.

St. Paul parishioners will no doubt embrace this new focus and their community's second quarter-century with the same courage, faith and generosity that brought them to the United States, helped them build up a parish and preserve old traditions while embracing new.

Quick facts
St. Paul Chung Church
4712 Rippling Pond Dr.
Fairfax, Va.

Pastor: Fr. Hoin Peter Kwak
Parochial vicar: Fr. Kim Jeong-Ha
Deacon: Paul Hyo-June Lee
DRE: Fr. Kim Jeong-Ha

Mass Schedule:
Sat.: 7:30 p.m. vigil
Sun.: 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 11:40 a.m. (English), 5 p.m.
Tue. and Fri.: 7:30 p.m.
Wed.: 11 a.m.

Parishioners: 5,886

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011