It’s a long way from St. Martin de Porres Church in the high mountains of Papua New Guinea to the urban setting of St. Benedict Church in Anchorage.
But for Father Michael Ko, the newly appointed parochial vicar at St. Benedict, who previously served in the South Pacific nation, it’s just another step on his journey of commitment and adventure with the Korean Missionary Society. The Society sends missionary priests to areas of need around the globe.
“It’s the first time I’ve been to the states in my life,” Father Ko said of his July 11 arrival in Anchorage. “Everything is new and different from Papua New Guinea,”
Anchorage is also very different from Father Ko’s native South Korea, where the 45-year-old began his career path working for an automobile company after graduating from technical college.
He spent seven years as a mechanical designer, succeeding in a competitive corporate culture which emphasized hard work.
But then, he said, “something changed in my mind. I felt I was becoming part of the machine. I felt an emptiness in my heart. I couldn’t find meaning in my life.”
That began to change when the young designer saw a documentary on Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata and her Missionaries of Charity. The documentary portrayed a student who had visited the nun and ended up staying for two years to assist her in her work.
“I was touched,” said Father Ko.
The experience sparked his interest in becoming a priest with the Korean Missionary Society, a group serving the faithful in nine distinct areas of the globe, from Mozambique to Cambodia, Alaska to Mexico, and both Taiwan and mainland China. Father Ko was ordained to the priesthood in 2008.
Alaska is the first U.S. location for the Korean Missionary Society, which was founded in 1975.
The Archdiocese of Anchorage began its association with the Society in 2012, when three priests arrived. When two of the priests returned to Korea due to health issues, Father Andrew Lee was left as a lone member of the society in the archdiocese.
“It’s very important to have community with other Korean Missionary Society priests,” said Father Ko, who added that at least two priests should serve in every area.
“Finally, with Father Michael Ko’s arrival, I have company,” laughed Father Lee, who was appointed on July 1 to be the parochial vicar, and only resident priest, at Holy Cross Church in South Anchorage. Previously, he lived in Big Lake and served both Our Lady of the Lake and St. Christopher in Willow.
“I’ve been here for two and a half years alone,” he observed.
Although the two priests do not share a residence, they do share Korean as a first language. Both men, however, have excellent English skills.
Father Ko said that every student in South Korea studies English, but often it’s written English and therefore pronunciation and the spoken language lag behind. He, however, was determined and practiced every day using tapes.
“I wanted to speak better. I had an uncle-in-law from the Caribbean, who spoke Spanish. But he could speak a little English, and he played soccer. I wanted to talk to him about soccer, so we communicated in English.”
Archbishop Roger Schwietz, who first invited the Korean Missionary Society to Alaska, said he thinks their presence in the state could also benefit the dioceses in Fairbanks and Juneau.
“They are well educated, well prepared, and have a great pastoral sense,” he said of the society’s priests. “They make good missionaries here in Alaska and see this as a good mission for them. They adapt well to our culture.”
Archbishop Schwietz said he thinks the society’s priests could be especially helpful in Alaska Native communities in the Diocese of Fairbanks.
In Papua New Guinea, Father Ko served in the Diocese of Mendi, where roughly 10 percent of the area’s population of 800,000 is Catholic. His church was in the cooler highlands of the region.
The country is relatively new to Catholicism, and was evangelized less than 70 years ago by Capuchin Franciscans from the United States who founded the Mendi Diocese.
Today, several religious orders send priests to the country, and the current bishop of the Mendi diocese, Bishop Donald Lippert, is a Capuchin from the U.S.
Father Ko said Papua New Guinea has hundreds of dialects but a language called “talk pidgin” provides a common means of communication.
“But it’s very hard to express deep philosophical meaning, so when the priests get together we would use English,” he said.
Members of the Korean Missionary Society serve three-year terms before returning to Korea for three months of home leave. Usually, a Society member will spend at least six years in his assigned country and longer, depending in part on visa arrangements with the host country.
Unfortunately for Father Ko, his assignment to Papua New Guinea was cut short by cartilage damage to both knees, a condition he said has been resolved by treatment and physical therapy in Korea.
The Archdiocese of Anchorage has long had associations with Korean priests. The late Archbishop Francis Hurley first requested priests from South Korea to serve a growing Alaskan Korean population, and today priests from Korea still serve the Korean parish, St. Andrew Kim on Lake Otis Parkway in Anchorage.
The Korean Missionary Society is different, however, in that their focus is not serving primarily expatriate Koreans or citizens of Korean descent, but serving the needs of the wider local church.
Father Ko said he feels blessed to be serving at St. Benedict with pastor Father Tom Lilly. He laughs that much of his U.S. experience involved watching lots of American movies, but he is already impressed with the “very good and kind people” he has met at St. Benedict’s and looks forward to serving the sacramental needs of the church as well as helping with Lumen Christi High School, a ministry of St. Benedict.