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The ‘Korean Jesus’ who loved Mongolian nomads

Father Stephen Kim Seong-hyeon served in Mongolia for 22 years until his death last year at the age of 55
Father Stephen Kim Seong-hyeon is seen with a girl in front of his ger (traditional Mongolian tent) in this file image.

Father Stephen Kim Seong-hyeon is seen with a girl in front of his 'ger' (traditional Mongolian tent) in this file image. (Photo: Daejeon Diocese)

Published: May 28, 2024 08:10 AM GMT
Updated: May 29, 2024 06:01 AM GMT

Ziekmet Dergy looks back on the life of Father Stephen Kim Seong-hyeon as the soothing sunlight touches Erdensant, a collective of villages in the vast prairie land of central Mongolia, at the end of another extremely cold winter.

“He was not like a father, he was truly a father. The emptiness of his absence is too big to carry,” an emotional Dergy said during a recent interview.

The South Korean missionary priest spent 22 years in Mongolia before his untimely death on May 26 at the age of 55.

He lived with people in a village about 216 kilometers from the national capital Ulaanbaatar.

Dergy, a teacher, said villagers viewed him as “Jesus who came to us in the form of the weakest baby in a shabby manger.”

“He came to the lowest place because he loved people. Like Jesus he had nothing to wear or eat, so they decided to share with him what they had,” Dergy recalled.

Mr. Kim — father and teacher

Kim worked in various parishes and mission stations near Ulaanbaatar for about 16 years.

He spent the rest of his years in Erdensant in Tov province, one of the country's 21 provinces.

“He built no splendid cathedral or impressive school, but he was the ‘poor face of Jesus’ who left behind something more valuable,” said an unnamed villager.

“He wanted to introduce that kind of Jesus to Mongolians,” the villager said.

Dergy remembers that many villagers were comfortable calling him “Mr. Kim” not Father.

Kim made prayer an integral part of his daily life, he said.

“It seemed he was always praying, even when he was smoking or walking around. When I met the priest, I felt like Jesus was coming to me,” he recollected.

He said Kim lived like a Mongolian in the ger (large, traditional tent), cooking over a fire, eating, riding horses, and tending sheep.

“He was different from other foreigners who stopped by for a while and then returned.”

Kim endured the harsh winter year after year in a country where it is common to see livestock die because they could not eat.

For him the spring in Mongolia was still cold, even colder on the grassland where life had not yet grown.

“Kim's life, which conveyed the support of a father, the comfort of a friend, and the love of Jesus, was like a life full of spring,” he said.

Dergy said Kim was determined to become a true friend to the villagers.

“He lived with them, wore the same clothes and ate the same food. He stayed in Erdensant happier than anyone else,” he recalled.

Kim also taught the Korean language to villagers and encouraged people to get an education to contribute to the development of the nation.

“Mr. Kim always told me to study and work hard to help the country develop, and to make my children study hard too,” he added.

Born in Daejeon, in South Korea in 1968, Kim was ordained a priest in 1998. He went to Mongolia as a missionary of Daejeon diocese in 2000.

Two years later, he built and opened the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the shape of a Mongolian ger in Hang-ol, Ulaanbaatar.

The door of the church was always open for travelers to rest in a place that was unfamiliar to Catholicism.

Poor people who had nowhere to go often knocked at the door for food and rest.

Kim also gathered 12 poor and orphaned children who were mostly trash collectors. On the side of the church, he set up bedrooms and study rooms for the children.

He gave all his clothes and shoes to the children so they could survive the bitter winter.

He wished one of these children would become a priest one day.

“He was a father to these children. They still miss him a lot,” Dergy said.

A gift from God

Despite enduring severe cold amid a lack of electricity and water, Kim once said Erdensant was “like heaven” to him.

Kim’s missionary life responded to the signs of the times, says Korean priest Thomas Noh Sang-min, pastor of Bayinghesho Sophia Parish in Mongolia.

“As capitalism spread and the number of apathetic believers increased, he felt that a new missionary method was needed” he said, adding that it prompted the priest to leave the city center for villages.

“Living the spirituality of poverty is the mission of a missionary priest,” he pointed out.

Once asked why he ditched a comfortable life to become a missionary in harsh conditions, Kim said it was God’s calling for him to be “the wind” that blows over the vast grasslands of Mongolia and its tiny Church.

He loved Mongolia’s tiny Catholic Church with just little over 1,500 members in a nation of about 3.4 million who depend largely on foreign missionaries like the late Kim.

Pope Francis became the first pope to visit Mongolia from Aug. 31-Sept. 4, 2023, three months after Kim died reportedly due to a heart attack.

Kim was worried about the future of the children he supported. He requested fellow missionaries to start a public fund at Hang-ol Church to assist the children when he was no longer around.

Back in Erdensant, Dergy says Kim was “a gift of God” to Mongolia.

He regrets that Kim died without seeing another spring, which brings the nation to life after an extremely harsh continental winter.

“But his life itself was the spring to the rest. We believe he is still alive,” he said.

This report is brought to you in collaboration with Catholic Times of Korea.

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1 Comments on this Story
JOHN MASCARENHAS
looks like fr kim was like 'jesus living within the community just like them, but A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION AND GOODNESS. would that not be similar if jesus lived among them without all the miracles??MAY THE MONGOLIANS WHO KNEW HIM, BE TOUCHED BY HIS LIFE & SPIRIT IN JESUS AND BE INSPIRED. GOD BLESS!
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