A lifelong missionary with the immigrant community in the United States

The story of a Holy Family nun who embodies founder Sister Dolores Armer’s dream of healing hearts and saving the lives of the people she meets on crowded city streets. Sister Michaela O’Connor’s commitment to the Kimhmu family living in California has become a bond of love with them that will last forever.

Charlotte Hall

Sister Michaela O’Connor keeps Bible stories alive in the hearts of the Kumahmu community in Richmond, California. She is his favorite teacher, friend, and confidant. Many of the elders in the community do not know how to read, so they often turn to Sister Michaela and ask her to “tell a Bible story.”

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Sister Michaela met Kimmo in the early 1990s, when she was working for the Diocese of Auckland. Although the diocese had an Office for Ethnic Peoples, the Kemhmu felt lost: in fact, they were a very small group who spoke a language not shared with any other ethnic group. Then they went to the diocese because they had a great concern: how to transmit the faith to their children.

After Mass, Sister Michaela always makes sure to talk to everyone: it’s the only way she can find out what’s going on in the lives of the Kumhamo migrants.

From the first meeting, Sister Michaela was drawn to them. “They are good, loving people, with deep family and community values, and they are very welcoming. “I would have really liked to help them, but the Religious Education Office was in the process of restructuring and I didn’t know what it could promise.” And so Sister Michaela began meeting women like Mahmo. One night a week as a volunteer, and ever since then she has always been with them.

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Who are they?

The Kimhamo come from the hills of Laos, where they have been ignored for years by the government. French and Italian missionaries introduced them to Christianity in the mid-nineteenth century. The Khammu also tried to “invent” a written form of their language, but in the end it was never adopted. The only way to receive an education was to leave their homes in the hills, although lessons were taught in the Lao language, which they did not know. For this reason, very few Kumhamo learned to read.

Because Kmhamu left Laos

When the communists invaded Laos in the mid-1970s, they were persecuted because of their religion. Those who managed fled to other countries, and so, in the early 1980s, a small number of refugees settled as immigrants in Richmond, California, to build a new life for their families. When they arrived, they knew little or nothing about the American way of life, and most did not know a word of English. Of course, they turned to the church for help, and that’s how Sister Michaela entered their lives.

Sister Michaela listens carefully to a woman asking her for advice.

Sister Michaela listens carefully to a woman asking her for advice.

Great support in the integration process

Eventually, Sister Michaela became a full-time “parish sister.” Initially, the diocese supported his work. When financial resources ran out, her community – the Sisters of the Holy Family – continued for decades to support Sister Michaela in her missionary work in Kemhamo. True to the missionary spirit, Sister Michaela responded to all the needs of her people—spiritual, physical, and emotional. He did everything he could to improve their living conditions.

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“I did all kinds of social work that I had never learned to do before, including working with immigrants, and even with food stamps and other government programs, and I was also able to get scholarships for children. I filled out all kinds of forms: since the Kummu don’t have written language, filling out forms is not natural for them.

Members of the Kumhamo community have always sought Sister Michaela’s support in their efforts to integrate into American life. Sister Michaela laughed with them, cried with them, and nourished their love for Christ. As much as they love their new country, they have kept their traditional culture and customs alive.

Sister Michaela with two leaders of the Kumhmo community: Manh Phongpopova (right) and Chomkyu Manyporn, president and vice-president of the Kumhmo Pastoral Council respectively.

Sister Michaela with two leaders of the Kumhmo community: Manh Phongpopova (right) and Chomkyu Manyporn, president and vice-president of the Kumhmo Pastoral Council respectively.

Adaptation continues

Recently, the Kumhamo community was invited by Bishop Barber to move from the large parish they had been part of for decades to a smaller parish, St. David’s Wells, and they had a wonderful time. They were warmly welcomed into the new parish and made many new acquaintances while remaining a separate group, with their own pastoral council and Mass celebrated in their own language.

Now there are the new generations of “Kimhmu”, those who were born and raised in the United States and who therefore no longer need assistance with cultural assimilation. However, they always make sure to have Sister Michaela by their side as much as possible. Since 2021, Sister Michaela Ministries has been part of the Sisters of the Holy Family leadership team. Although her ministry no longer cares for them, she remains associated with the Kumhmu and spends a lot of time with them as a “volunteer.” Almost every Saturday, he faces a long car ride to celebrate Mass with them and then experience moments in community.

slim "How much do they care?" They're wearing clothes they've hand-sewn: everyone wants a photo with Sister Michaela.

Kumhamo women wearing hand-sewn clothes: they all want to take a photo with Sister Michaela.

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Caring for families, both spiritually and practically, is a charism that the Sisters of the Holy Family have included since 1872. The Archbishop of San Francisco, Monsignor Joseph S. Alemany, to its founder, Sister Dolores: “There are hearts to be healed and souls to be saved in the crowded streets of our city: this is the work God is asking you to do. Like hundreds of her sisters before her, Sister Michaela brings the love of Jesus Christ to people wherever they are. She did so in a corner of Richmond, where she and the Kemhmu built a bond of love and trust that would last a lifetime.

Sacha Woodward

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