Serving the new Chinese immigrants in Chinatown

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, June 11, 2017

Father Francis Li hands a red envelope to dancers performing the Lion Dance prior to Mass at St. Therese Chinese Church in Chicago’s Chinatown to kick off the celebration of the 2014 Lunar New Year. A red envelope usually contains a monetary or other gift given on holidays or special occasions. Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic

While other Chinatowns across the United States are seeing a decline in population, Chicago’s is growing, according to news reports. The growth is evident as more Chinese people move into neighboring communities such as Bridgeport and Canaryville.

The increase in new immigrants hasn’t gone unnoticed by St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church.

Father Francis Li, pastor of St. Therese, 218 W. Alexander St., has noticed the influx and has also been approached by priests in neighboring parishes about advice for ministering to the new people.

"Obviously it’s more than what St. Therese is able to serve," he said.

Li, who was born and raised in the Shanxi Province on mainland China, has firsthand knowledge of what the immigrants experience when they arrive here. He came to Chicago to study at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in 1994 and was ordained a priest in China in 1999. He returned for more study and eventually Cardinal George asked him to become pastor at St. Therese.

Li views the population increase as both a challenge and an opportunity for the church — especially for the Chinese apostolate based at the parish.

"Most of them who come here are not Christians. Some of them don’t have faith," he said. "I think we have to do something to reach out to them to be able to share the Good News with them."

That something is in addition to what the parish already offers, such as RCIA programs in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. The last two Li started himself after people requested them.

The immigrants come from a country where religion is looked upon with suspicion, or seen as being only for the poor in a country where material and professional success is paramount. Honor and virtue are strong in Chinese families. They encourage their children to work hard, study hard and play less.

When they come to Chicago and see all of the churches, they begin to change their minds, Li said.

"They hear about us. They are intrigued. Ultimately that is our human hunger for God," he said.

They also begin to see people in authority embracing religion and that it is for everyone.

To reach out those on the margins, as Pope Francis requests, Li started a monthly gathering with food and fellowship for Chinese students enrolled in local colleges and universities. More than 25 students regularly attend. It’s a way to introduce them to the church in a non-threatening way

Christian churches in the neighborhood routinely reach out to the new immigrants and offer them hospitality — picking them up from the airport, teaching them how to shop in grocery stores and how to navigate the city on mass transit. They build a relationship with them then they invite them to Bible studies and religious services.

Li would like to offer similar help to the new immigrants but can’t do it alone. He is looking to bring some Chinese religious sisters to the parish to help with ministry to new immigrants.

Such ministry is an example of the vitality emphasized in the Renew My Church process. Catholics are going outside their comfort zones and ministering to those with no faith.

St. Therese Chinese Catholic School, also located in Chinatown at 247 W. 23rd St., is a large part of the Chinese apostolate. While only a third of the students are Catholic, all of them participate fully in all aspects of school life, including the liturgies.

"They’re full students in our school. But because of their family background and religious/cultural ethos they aren’t going to be confirmed or baptized while they’re here. But maybe later on they will. We planted seeds," said Thomas Howard, director of religious education at the school.

The Catholic Church always gives people freedom to make a choice to come into the church.

"That’s always been our strategy in the Chinese apostolate and the school is to give people opportunities to be successful but to also plant seeds for the faith," Howard said. "We never pressure anyone. We don’t measure ourselves on how many baptisms we have this year."

The parents who aren’t Catholic don’t always show up for events like May crownings, but they do attend the awards ceremonies and baccalaureate Masses. Then their children will invite the parents to Masses where they are reading or services and processions they are participating in.

"Little by little the parents get exposed ... to something their kid is doing within the context of Catholic life. And then they have conversations about what it means," Howard said.

The seed Howard refers to is bearing fruit in newly ordained Deacon Christian Shiu.

Shiu was born to immigrant parents and attended St. Therese School. He wasn’t raised Catholic but later felt called to join the church and will be ordained a priest next May.

"I certainly see that St. Therese Chinese Catholic School really planted the seed in terms of my vocation. Of course I didn’t realize it back then but certainly in terms of learning about the faith in religion class and the catechesis I received just in school," Shiu said.

He recalls going to school Masses during Lent and Advent and on special feasts.

"That had a profound impact on me as well. I remember vividly the prayers, a lot of the rituals at Mass, a lot of the songs too that really touched my heart and always stayed with me," he said.

After graduating from St. Therese, Shiu attended a public school and then DePaul University. Around eighth grade Shiu said he felt a distinct call to serve. For a time he pursued a career as a police officer.

It was during his time at DePaul that he felt called to learn more about the Catholic faith and eventually join the church. Through a series of providential events, Shiu connected with Li, who would soon become administrator of St. Therese Parish, where Shiu always felt at home.

After Shiu joined the church, he started attending daily Mass and volunteering at the church, helping Li in the office.

"He took me under his wing," Shiu said. Li let Shiu accompany him to visit hospital patients, to serve at funerals and participate in other priestly duties.

"It was really Father Li and his example, his love for the priesthood, his great mentoring that really also was formative and helping me to choose what God was calling me to," he said.

Shiu’s mother is Buddhist. His father believes in God but doesn’t practice a particular faith. His mother was very supportive of his vocation from the beginning but his father "wasn’t that happy" with the decision.

"It’s even more countercultural in the Chinese culture because in the Chinese culture there is a strong emphasis on being the best, also pursuing the American dream here in the States and having a family and having kids so the parents can have grandchildren," Shiu said.

He’s an only child, so that meant no grandchildren for his parents. But they’ve been on the journey with him. They’ve attended four Easter Vigils where Shiu sang the exultant and they go to see him serve or speak.

"My parents are very open to the Catholic Church and the faith and the Mass," he said.

Shiu’s vocation will always be connected to St. Therese.

"His journey is indicative of us," Howard said. "I think that was because of St. Therese. That’s how we define the Chinese apostolate."

"We have all of these potential [Deacon] Christians in our school now," Howard said. "They don’t know where the Lord is going to lead them but we do everything we can to give them opportunities to connect their narrative."


  • st therese chinese catholic
  • chinese apostolate
  • francis li
  • kevin christian shiu
  • thomas howard