Members of the Lao Catholic community within the Archdiocese of Melbourne recently celebrated their New Year. Though the community is small—consisting of about 50 members, mostly based in Melbourne’s outer south-east and west—the celebration brought together a wider circle of family and friends to share in the occasion.

Lao community member Theresa Souvannasing explains that the community usually celebrates Mass together in a home on the fourth Sunday of each month, followed by the sharing of food. The gathering provides an opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist together, to catch up on news and to share food. Hospitality and welcome are an important part of the Lao faith and cultural tradition. All are welcome at the Masses and gatherings.

For the New Year celebrations, Mass was held on Saturday 15 April at St Martin’s Catholic Parish in Avondale Heights. In Laos, New Year celebrations run over three days usually—this year from 14 to 16 April—and over four days in a leap year. Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ, who has been chaplain for the Lao community for almost 40 years, was the celebrant, with around 50 people attending.

Theresa explains, ‘After Mass, we have the ‘Baci-Soukwan’ ceremony, where we tie white thread on the wrists of each other, offering good wishes. There is also a Lao traditional dance, known as a well-wishing and blessing dance, and then the party follows.’

In the spirit of ‘Lao hospitality’, there was plenty of food for the celebration, including beef and turkey, or ‘larp’, which means ‘fortune’ in Lao tradition; Lao fried noodles, which signify longevity; sticky rice, for solidarity; rice rolls, papaw salad, spring rolls and fried chicken. Desserts included fruits, coconut milk layered cakes (which signify ‘promotion’, explains Theresa), mixed coconut milk drinks, macaroons and cream puffs.

Fr Andrew stayed on for the celebrations, saying grace and leading the first dance. He is no stranger to the warm welcome and hospitality of the Lao community, having been their chaplain for so many years, a role he sees as helping ‘the community in their desire to meet and celebrate’. The monthly Mass is often held in the home he shares with the Jesuit community in Parkville. Apart from the eucharistic prayer, most of the Mass is said in the Lao language.

He explains that while the Lao Catholic community in Melbourne is small in number, it ‘came out of a strong Catholic Church in Laos’, and for that reason, the Lao Catholic community here has been ‘cohesive’. About 20 people gather for the monthly masses, with 50 or more gathering at Christmas.

Speaking of both the Lao Catholic community and Cambodian community (for which he was chaplain for many years), he feels their greatest contribution to the Church in Melbourne has been a simple and profound hospitality, ‘both of giving and receiving’.

‘When I first met them, they were a handful of refugee families,’ explains Fr Andrew. ‘I offered to celebrate Mass for them on the condition that they led the community and kept it going. I didn’t then expect that agreement to last for so long!’

‘It was really a house church, based around Jesuit student communities like the early Christian communities, and we invited Australians from the Vinnies and sisters working with refugees. They offered help and advice in settling into Australia. And the community prepared for them their lovely food. It became and has remained a community of friends, welcoming overseas seminarians and relatives, and others who were seeking a gentle introduction to refugees and immigrants.’

If you’d like to join a Lao Mass, held on the last Sunday of the month, followed by a meal, please contact Theresa Souvannasing.