Masses in Korean at 100-year-old parish

(L-R) Father Paul Kim, Monsignor Brendan Riordan and

(L-R) Father Paul Kim, Monsignor Brendan Riordan and Deacon Stephen Choi of St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in Great Neck. (June 13, 2013) (Credit: Danielle Finkelstein)

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St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in Great Neck offers Masses not only in English and Spanish, but in a language not often associated with the Catholic Church: Korean.

The parish, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its church building Sunday, offers two Masses in Korean every Sunday, along with classes in Korean history, culture, language, literature and even martial arts.

The parish also has the only Korean deacon in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Stephen Choi.Growing numbers

The emergence of Koreans at the parish -- one of only two on Long Island that offer Korean-language Masses -- underscores both how the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is changing as well as South Korea itself, said Msgr. Brendan Riordan, the longtime pastor at St. Aloysius.

"It perfectly reflects the situation of the church in America today," with an increasingly diverse mix of ethnic groups, including many immigrants, Riordan said. "It is much more Catholic in the sense of universal."

The parish is 30 percent Korean and 30 percent Latino, Riordan said.

South Korea is also changing, with growing numbers of Christians, including Catholics. South Korea "has embraced Christianity with great enthusiasm," he said.

More than 14 million are Christians -- almost 30 percent of the population -- and of those more than 5 million are Catholics, according to a 2010 estimate by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Christianity was first introduced to Korea in the early 17th century by a returning diplomat who brought back books from a Jesuit missionary in China. It has grown rapidly since the end of World War II.

Koreans remain a small minority in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States: about 70,000 to 80,000 of 75 million Catholics, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. Of the 1 million Korean-Americans, 300,000 are Protestants.

There are also about 100 exchange priests from Korea working in the United States, the conference says.

They include the Rev. Paul Kim, who is the latest priest from Korea to spend a three-year stint at St. Aloysius. His term ends in September.

Koreans started immigrating to Long Island in significant numbers around 1970, with larger numbers coming in the 1980s. By the mid-1980s, Catholics among them started celebrating Mass at churches in New Hyde Park and Westbury, before settling at St. Aloysius in 1991, according to Riordan and Choi. The other Long Island church currently offering Korean-language Masses is Holy Name of Jesus in Woodbury.

Most of the Koreans who come to St. Aloysius don't live in Great Neck, Choi said. Instead they hail from places such as Valley Stream and Commack, and Flushing and Bayside in Queens. About 180 attend the two Masses.

A welcoming parish

Long Island is home to about 19,000 Koreans, according to the 2010 census. Choi said many of the faithful come to the parish not only to worship but to find companionship with fellow countrymen.

"We were isolated" at the parish in the beginning because of language and cultural barriers, he said. The parish "welcomed us, but we were scared."

The mix of groups can sometimes be confusing and even amusing, said Jack Baumann, the parish's business manager. Baumann, 65, has spent his entire life at the parish, from baptism to the present.

He said that when he holds the doors open for Korean women at the church, they bow to him. "It's very strange. I bow back. I don't know what to do. It's awkward," he said. "It's a cultural thing, but it's very nice." Baumann also added that all the different ethnic groups at the church get along.

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