BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
It is October 2002. RoseMary Trowbridge of Morganfield attends Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Square in Rome, believing it will be her last visit to Italy before breast cancer takes her life.
Trowbridge befriends a Burmese priest sitting in the row in front of her. His name is Fr. Timothy Khui Shing Ling, she learns that the priest is studying in Rome to receive his Licentiate and Doctorate in Missiology.
After Mass, Fr. Shing Ling says, “I will see you again.”
Trowbridge responds: “Unless you’re going to Heaven…” and tells him about the cancer, which has spread through other parts of her body.
But the Burmese priest insists they will meet again.
Fast-forward to December 2018: a cancer-free Trowbridge arrives in a remote town in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) – and is greeted by crowds of joyful people thanking her for her work in establishing a new school.
How did one woman journey from utter fear and despair to such hope and joy?
As Trowbridge told The Western Kentucky Catholic on Jan. 9, 2019, “You don’t know what can happen when you meet someone.”
After the first meeting in Rome in 2002, Trowbridge and her husband, Kenny, kept up a correspondence with Fr. Shing Ling.
“We became each other’s prayer warriors,” Trowbridge told the WKC.
Fr. Shing Ling prayed for Trowbridge’s battle with cancer. Trowbridge prayed for the people Fr. Shing Ling was serving in Myanmar – a country beset with civil unrest, poverty and religious persecutions.
(Fr. Shing Ling’s particular ministry was to a town called Mindat in Chin State – an especially impoverished part of the already-struggling country.)
In February 2003, Trowbridge wrote to the priest that her doctors had only given her 18 months to live.
Fr. Shing Ling did not give up hope, and offered 30 Masses for Trowbridge throughout that month, certain that his friend would be healed.
He continued praying through a series of novena Masses over the course of the following nine months “with full hope and trust of miraculous healing,” Fr. Shing Ling told the WKC in a Jan. 29, 2019 email.
Trowbridge continued praying for the people of Myanmar, offering up her suffering for them through her three-year chemotherapy regime.
“Every poke, every chemo, every radiation I offered up for Myanmar,” said Trowbridge.
A turning point came in 2005 when Trowbridge needed a tumor cut from her lung. But something went wrong, and during the surgery Trowbridge woke up from the anesthesia while still being completely paralyzed. Unable to communicate with the doctors, she felt the entire surgery.
“The crucifix came to me during that surgery; I united my suffering to His,” she told the WKC.
Miraculously, she has had no sign of cancer since that surgery.
Now cancer-free, Trowbridge wanted to do something tangible to assist the people her priest friend was serving in Myanmar.
In 2008, she and Fr. Shing Ling established the Mindat Charity Association, a non-profit that fundraised for Mindat. Through this organization, donors sent money for Fr. Shing Ling to buy urgently-needed supplies for his people.
“However, we always had a long-term goal to build a Montessori school to give the children a good base education,” Trowbridge told the WKC.
Meanwhile, more and more Burmese refugees were starting new lives in western Kentucky thanks to the International Center of Kentucky in Bowling Green.
With permission from his bishop and from Bishop William F. Medley of the Diocese of Owensboro, Fr. Shing Ling arrived in Kentucky in 2013 to serve the Burmese refugees for a set period of time. He was assigned to Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green, which has a large number of Burmese parishioners.
Fr. Shing Ling’s ministry changed from serving his community in Myanmar to serving his community in Kentucky, but he and Trowbridge hoped that a new school in Mindat could still happen.
The people of Holy Spirit came to know and love their new priest, Fr. Shing Ling. In 2016, after pastor Fr. John Thomas shared about the dream for a school in Mindat, the parishioners raised a large donation for that purpose.
Little by little, funds were raised and word spread. And in February 2018 the groundbreaking for St. Paul Montessori Little Home took place.
While classes began in November 2018, the formal dedication for the new school was set to take place on Dec. 6, 2018. Trowbridge was invited to attend, and flew out with her sister, Barbara Lehecka. From the airport, Fr. Shing Ling (who had returned to Myanmar after his allotted five years of service in the U.S.) picked them up and drove through the mountainous region for eight hours to reach Mindat.
Arriving in Mindat, Trowbridge and Lehecka were astonished to see the entire community had come out to welcome them.
“When we got out of the car and started walking up the hill, we were presented with flowers; the music and dancing started,” Trowbridge told the WKC. “We had no idea how large the celebration would be. It was so humbling to see the joy and appreciation on their faces.”
The dedication celebration lasted all day and included a tour of the 32-student school.
Trowbridge told the WKC that the teachers used the Montessori method, and that the families are not charged anything. The property also includes a boarding house for children whose families cannot afford to care for them, as well as an orphanage.
Trowbridge said that before they left Mindat, they also visited Fr. Shing Ling’s 1,500-member parish of St. Theresa, a new nursing home, the old school building, and a new water filter system.
The chance encounter in 2002 has borne countless fruits even apart from the school.
Though Fr. Shing Ling returned to his parish and community in Myanmar in 2018, his friendship with the Trowbridge family and his connection to western Kentucky continues. Thanks to Fr. Shing Ling’s work, the Burmese community at Holy Spirit is flourishing.
After Fr. Timothy returned to Myanmar, another Burmese priest, Fr. John Paul Mang Sein Yaw, was sent to Kentucky to continue serving the local Burmese.
Fr. Shing Ling told the WKC that that meeting at the Vatican in 2002 was a “miraculously divine-planned meeting through God’s grace and blessing.”
“We will surely do more in God’s power, miracles and love,” he said.
To learn more and how to help, visit stpaulmontessorilittlehome.org
Originally printed in the March 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic