03/30/2007, 00.00
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Fr Paolo Noè, PIME last missionary in Myanmar, dies

by Bernardo Cervellera
With Fr Noè’s passing, the chapter in the history of Myanmar’s first evangelisation is closed. In the country since 1867, PIME founded six dioceses. Among the Shan and Karen people, missionaries also promoted development.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Myanmar’s last ‘patriarch’ is no more. Fr Paolo Noè, 89, passed away in Hwari. Mgr Peter Hla, the bishop of the local diocese who gave the news, confirmed that he will attend the funeral scheduled to take place on April 2.

Fr Paolo Noè was the last missionary in the country sent by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). Unlike most other foreign missionaries who were expelled by the government in 1966, including those who had arrived before independence, he was able to remain.

He had first arrived in 1948 in what was then still called Burma. Thus he spent about 59 years of his life in his country of adoption. He was also the last of the 29 missionaries allowed to have a residency visa. But he was never able to leave because the government in Yangon threatened him and the others that if they left they would not be allowed back in. All of them vowed then to stay put until death and never travel abroad

Yet the government could completely enforce its threat against PIME missionaries. One of the 29, Fr Igino Mattarucco, was able to return to Italy for the first time after more than 30 years.

In 2003, speaking about the fellow missionaries that he had lost over the years, a moved Father Noè said: “They have all gone back to the Father with my love and, if you will, my sorrow.”

After his arrival in Myanmar, Fr Paolo studied English, Burmese and Karen, working first at the mission in Toungoo, then in Taunggyi, and finally in Pekhon. Each of these dioceses was set up during the first phase of evangelisation by PIME missionaries.

Created in 2005, the diocese of Pekhon covers 25,890 km2, slightly bigger than the island of Sicily. It has a population of about 450,000, including 37,000 Catholics (8.3 per cent), with 23 priests and 41 nuns.

Father Paolo was not very good at languages, but his dedication, generosity and love helped him overcome many an obstacle. He always found it easy to communicate and did so with passion.

In a letter dated 1994, he wrote: “Who has not tripped his tongue trying to speak these very complicated languages with three or four tonalities? Especially for someone like myself who knows nothing about music. People feel sorry for me and we laugh about it. This makes it easier to appreciate and love one another.”

In the years of direct evangelisation, Father Paolo was very much involved in working with minority Shan and Karen people, and among the Padaung, the so-called wild people known for their women who wear long brass rings around the neck.

For many years he also acted as the mission’s superior even though he was the “youngest” of the Fathers.

Retiring at age of 80, he went to work as coadjutor in the parish of Hwari, which PIME founded in 1890. Here he gave advice and moral support to young priests, nuns, believers and even to the bishop of the new diocese of Pekhon, Mgr Peter Hla, who as a child had been one of his altar boys.

In Father Noè one could see an elder’s awareness and joy in seeing his spiritual children and grand children pick up where he left off as they continued his work of a lifetime.

Father Noè lived in a region that belongs to the so-called ‘Black Area’, a restricted area, off-limits to Westerners. In this part of the country, ethnic Shan and Karen seeking autonomy have a long history of clashes with the army. Now that is in the past because of an agreement with the government, but tensions remain high.

The region is one of the poorest and backward corners of Myanmar. Underdevelopment is due to a subsistence-based culture, fighting, the opium trade, and government neglect—for decades the authorities banned local schools.

Father Noè’s commitment and that of PIME missionaries gave birth to many Christian communities and a new development process.

PIME missionaries were the first to introduce local mountain farmers to potatoes. They did so to fight hunger among the local population. PIME’s buildings were also the first ones in brick and mortar. After establishing Christian communities, missionaries built brick churches. Admired for their solidity these churches quickly became the model locals followed. In this manner Father Noè, the son of a bricklayer, can be considered the local pioneer of this type of construction.

He was also instrumental in setting up schools, including in Hwari where a few schools for boys and girls were opened. They range from kindergarten to high school and by the end of 2005 the government gave them formal recognition.

The mission provided and still provides teachers, accommodation and food. The need to raise funds to feed Hwari’s 200 students became Father Paolo’s great worry in his twilight years.

“These kids go through two bags of rice every day,” he used to say. But he never fretted over it. In fact, he inspired confidence and elicited patience in others, trusting as he was in Divine Providence.

“We learnt to be patient,” was something else he used to say. “Without it you won’t survive in this neck of the woods.”

Father Paolo was witness to a heroic age, one that saw many missionaries involved in the first evangelisation, who in absolute poverty faced long treks on horseback or on foot just to visit villages, catechumens and Christians.

Since it arrived in Myanmar in 1867 PIME helped found six dioceses. Today the institute’s commitment to Myanmar continues and takes the form of aid to development as well as support for the training of local priests and the upgrading of their education.

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