Korean Catholics drive many miles to hear Mass in their native language

COLUMBIA—Father Ki-Tae Lee of Charlotte takes a long journey twice a month to make sure  Korean Catholics in the Diocese of Charleston are able to attend Mass in their native language.

He is pastor of St. John Lee Korean Catholic Church in Charlotte. On the second and third Saturday of each month, he drives to Asheville, N.C., and then to Columbia to celebrate Mass.

In Columbia, the Masses at St. John Neumann Church have been going on since the early ’90s. Attendance averages about 30, with some people driving from as far as Lexington and Sumter, said Columbia resident Margaret Lee, who helps organize the local liturgy.

“It’s important for the people to hear Mass in Korean because many of them don’t speak much English, and it’s a good way for them to worship together and get to know each other,” Mrs. Lee said.

The gatherings include time for prayer, fellowship and a shared meal. The group is diverse in  age, ranging from 20-somethings to senior citizens.

Columbia has a large Korean population, especially in its northeast neighborhoods. Many came  to the area through connections with the military at Fort Jackson, while others have been  drawn by the University of South Carolina and area industries.

The area supports at least two Korean Presbyterian churches, plus Baptist, United Methodist,  Seventh-day Adventist and other congregations who worship mainly in their original language.

The number of Catholics is small, but the community is cohesive and dedicated, members say.

“These Masses are a good chance for us to get together, appreciate what we have and  appreciate each other,” said Steve Lee, a member of Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia. He attends the Korean Mass each month.

“It’s also a time when we can all share information about what is going on in the Korean community, and among Korean Catholics,” he said.

For holidays such as Christmas and Easter, many of the people who attend the St. John  Neumann Masses travel to Father Lee’s church in Charlotte to meet and worship with others from around the Carolinas.

The two holidays are among the largest gatherings of Korean Catholics in the area during the  year.

South Korea is traditionally a Buddhist nation, but it is the most Christian nation in Asia outside the Philippines with one quarter of the population embracing Christianity.

About 5 million Catholics live in South Korea, which supports 15 dioceses and one military  ordinariate.

Catholicism came to Korea in 1784 after a young man, Yi Sung-Hun, was baptized in China and returned to his home country to teach others about the faith and baptize them.

The first priests arrived in Korea from France in 1836.

Catholics went through persecution in the 19th century, and thousands were martyred. Pope  John Paul II canonized 103 Korean martyrs in 1984.