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Father Simon Lee: With love from Korea to Mongolia

The pioneering South Korean Salesian missionary priest is a man of many talents

Father Simon Lee: With love from Korea to Mongolia

Darkhan is 229 kilometers north of Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar. (Photo supplied)

Father Simon Lee is a man of many skills — farmer, cook, educator, publisher, translator, friend and motivator to street children and youth, and so on.

The 65-year-old Salesian missionary priest from South Korea has been serving in Mongolia since 2001.

As an enthusiastic farmer, he cultivates vegetables and fruits with students and fellow confreres on the farm at the Salesian community in Darkhan, 229 kilometers north of capital Ulaanbaatar.

In Mongolia, summer is the season for farming as the harsh continental climate makes it impossible at other times.

Besides keeping some produce for food, the harvest of the Salesian farm is sold at market and the income goes to a fund that pays for the tuition fees of poor students.

The agricultural endeavors have taken renewed inspiration from Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si.

“Over the years the Don Bosco farm has become a wonderful expression of the ecological movement. Any kind of farming in the extreme weather of Mongolia (summer +40C and in winter -40C) is a challenge. However, for the young people and Don Bosco lay mission partners and the Salesian Cooperators the annual summer 'agro-oratory' brings a special satisfaction,” Father Lee wrote on the Salesian site.  

He teaches students and friends how to cook various dishes, especially kimchi, a popular Korean dish made with cabbage and radish.

As the rector of the Darkhan Salesian community, he looks after the Don Bosco oratory and youth center that cater to children and young students.

He also leads a student band group called Eco Band that performs ecological concerts with natural instruments in various parishes and institutions to raise awareness about protection of the environment.

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For years, with great enthusiasm and passion, Father Lee has been following St. Don Bosco’s example of spreading the good news through Don Bosco Media. He is supported by a group of five dedicated staff.

Don Bosco Media has published some 141 books, mostly on the catechism and general education, in Mongolian. About 95 percent are translated from Korean and the rest from English and Italian. General education books are distributed among students in rural schools for free.

In a recent interview Father Lee said that distribution of books to poor village schools is the “most satisfying” part of his publication apostolate.

As a tireless traveler, he visits faraway places, including those in remote Gobi province, to distribute books and pamphlets to young students.

Another ongoing project of Don Bosco Media is production of a 15-part YouTube series on the Old Testament, a documentary on climate change and two short films on human development.

“We dream of having a fully fledged Mongolian production one day,” he says.

In 2018, Father Lee pioneered the Bible Copier Movement in the Catholic parish in Darkhan whereby people commit to copying the entire Bible by hand to then display it in the church museum where locals can peruse it, ANS reported.

Father Simon Lee (left) with members of the Bible Copier Movement in Darkhan. (Photo: ANS)

From Buddhism to Catholicism

Simon Lee was born to a Buddhist family in 1956. He converted to Catholicism at a later age and decided to become a priest despite strong opposition from his family.

Once he told his confreres that “he chose to become a Salesian priest because of the religious order’s emphasis on formation and development of young people.”

He entered a Salesian seminary and pronounced his first vows in 1985. He was ordained a priest on June 24, 1993.

Following seven years of service in his homeland, he expressed his desire to go on a mission in Mongolia in 2000. The next year, he joined the first Salesian mission to Mongolia.    

At first, Father Lee was based at a Salesian daycare center for street children and disadvantaged youth in Ulaanbaatar. Then he was transferred to Darkhan, where he has been serving for more than 12 years.

Fellow Salesians eulogize Father Lee as a pioneering missionary.

“He is known for his simplicity, humility, friendliness and great dedication of his life for the young, especially the poor and the marginalized. He is admired and loved by the youth for whom he is working. He has served the mission in Mongolia in various capacities. He has worked with the street children. He has been in charge of the farms and of printing press simultaneously,” Salesian Father Anthony Minj wrote when his Korean confrere marked his 60th birthday.

In 2015, Father Lee was awarded the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award by the Korea International Cooperation Agency. He was listed among Korean nationals who “brightened the Korean image through dedicated work abroad.”  

Salesians and the Church in Mongolia

There are 12 Salesian missionaries serving in three missions in Mongolia — Ulaanbaatar, Suwuu and Darkhan. The missionaries belong to various nationalities including Koreans, Vietnamese and Europeans.

Mongolia, a country of some 3.2 million in an area of about 605,000 square kilometers, is one of the world’s most sparsely populated places, largely due to its harsh climate and acute scarcity of clean water. About 40 percent of Mongolians don’t have access to safe water, according to the 2030 Water Resource Group.

More than 50 percent of Mongolians are Buddhists, about 40 percent are non-religious, about 3 percent are Muslims, 2.5 percent are Shamanist and 1.3 percent are Christians, according to a 2020 census.

Catholicism arrived in Mongolia in the 13th century during the Mongol empire but withered away with the end of the Yuan dynasty in 1368. Although missionary activities resumed in the mid-19th century, they ceased to function when the communist regime came to power.

With the fall of communism and emergence of democracy in 1991, Catholic missionaries arrived and rebuilt the Church from the ashes. The Church currently has about 1,200 Catholics in four parishes.

Salesian missionaries, who arrived in Mongolia in 2001, play an important role in the Church’s mission, providing critical support for poor children and families to ensure they have equal opportunities for a better future.

They run a daycare center and elementary school, centers for street children and disadvantaged youth and two technical schools. A vital service provided by Salesians is a safe water supply point at Shuwuu mission center that provides clean water for hundreds of families every day.

Father Simon Lee has already spent two decades serving in Mongolia, but he hopes to go a long way.

“I want to stay young as I work for young people, if not physically at least in heart and mind,” the priest said.

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