GILLETT — Fr. Robert Ni Ni was awakened from bed at the rectory of St. John Church around 3 a.m. on March 20. A phone call from his family in Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia, should have been a happy one. The previous day was his mother’s 70th birthday.
Instead, Fr. Ni Ni, a member of the Missionaries of Faith religious order who has served as administrator of St. John in Gillett and St. Michael Parish in Suring since July 2018, was told that his mother’s home in Kwaingan, Dehmawso County, had burned to the ground. An accidental kitchen fire in the home where he grew up destroyed everything.
“All of our childhood memories, my ordination photos and chalice. Everything burned down,” he told The Compass in a telephone interview April 23. “Even my certificate of theology from my seminary, Urbaniana University” in Rome.
Fr. Ni Ni’s mother, Josephine, lives alone. “She has a hard time hearing on the phone and is forgetful. We don’t know exactly what happened,” he said.
The Myanmar native said he and his seven siblings, who include another priest (Fr. Henry, also a Missionaries of Faith priest) and religious sister (Sr. Florence, a Sister of Charity), grew up in the house, but all have moved away.
“I got a call from my brother … and first I asked if she was safe and they said yes,” said Fr. Ni Ni. “My mother lived in a remote area far from the city. They called the fire department, but they came late. The only thing she could pick up was a picture of my brother,” Fr. Henry, who lives in Rome.
His mother is now staying with another of her sons, Francis, and his family, who live in Loikaw, he said.
The same day the fire destroyed his mother’s house, Bishop David Ricken announced public Masses would be suspended in the Diocese of Green Bay. With the COVID-19 pandemic closing borders and air transportation, Fr. Ni Ni was not able to fly home to help his family. He was despondent.
When Cliff and Mary Gerbers, members of St. John Parish, stopped by the church that day to pray the Stations of the Cross, Fr. Ni Ni had one request: “Can you please pray for my family?”
Cliff Gerbers, chairman of the parish finance council, was determined to do more. He contacted fellow council members about starting a collection to help Fr. Ni Ni’s family build a new house for their mother.
“He was almost in tears when he told us the story,” said Gerbers. “He was just helpless that this happened, so I contacted the rest of the people from the finance committee and said, ‘Let’s do this right now. I know it’s not the greatest time with this COVID-19, but our parish needs something positive.’ They were all in agreement that we should do it.”
Kathy Campshure, secretary at St. John Parish, and Tricia Fischer, financial secretary at St. Michael Parish, coordinated the collection by sending out letters to members of their respective parishes.
“We only really gave people 10 days,” to respond, said Gerbers. “We sent letters out and checks started rolling in the next day.” The parishes raised over $11,600 to help build a new home for Fr. Ni Ni’s mother.
Campshure said a check will be delivered to Fr. Ni Ni this week and he will send the funds to his family.
“At first I thought we would never be able to rebuild a house,” said Fr. Ni Ni. His parishes’ generosity, along with support from family and friends in Myanmar, will help make it happen. “With their support, we will rebuild it as soon as possible. There is a great hope for us,” he said.
Fr. Ni Ni added that a new house would be built close to his brother’s home in Loikaw, “because we don’t want her to live by herself at all.”
“I think it meant a lot to him and it sure meant a lot to our parishes,” said Gerbers, adding that parish leaders are sending follow-up letters to donors “to thank everyone and (let them know) there will be a house for his mother.”
“It was a really good project all the way around, a positive feeling of what people are capable of doing,” he added. “Our parish needed it. We all needed it now.”