An exhibit of Hmong art at Christ Episcopal Church in La Crosse serves a dual purpose: rekindling memories of the parish’s role as the La Crosse funnel to welcome Hmong people to the United States and celebrating their colorful, detailed artworks.
Church members embraced the role as thousands of Hmong who had supported U.S. troops during the Vietnam War began immigrating from Laos and refugee camps in Thailand, parishioner Cherryl Frye recalled during an interview in the church’s Undercroft Gallery, where the artwork is being displayed.
“The primary migration spot was California,” said Frye, one of the parishioners involved in the initial efforts to help settle the refugees in La Crosse, beginning in 1983.
It was significant that many came here “because they chose to come here” instead of the Golden State, she said.
“This was a teaching center. The initial problem was that the preschoolers were not ready for school,” said Frye, who had preschool children of her own and took some in to help them learn.
“The adults said to us they wanted a program not in a classroom, but one-to-one,” Frye said.
Assuming responsibility for that, as well as much of the entire resettlement process, was the late Betty Weeth.
“She was a saint. She really helped the Hmong become established in our community,” Frye said.
“She was the reason this started,” said Sylvia Weathers, a parishioner who also was involved with the earliest settlers. “People from the church would go to the airport to welcome new families. Some came with no shoes.”
Shoes weren’t the only things they didn’t have, church member Jake Delwiche said, adding, “A family came one January day — maybe the coldest day of the winter — and got off the plane in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.”
Delwiche, who with his wife, Ann, owns many of the banners, pictures and other showpieces of the Hmong talent for needlework, said some pieces were gifts, while he bought others.
“Many came from refugee camps in Thailand,” he said. “Relatives would send them over here to be sold because it was the only way they could earn cash.
“The artwork originally was mostly headbands and personal articles. But they realized they could sell bigger items,” he said, so they started producing wall hangings and furniture throws.
Many needlework items feature scenes from home — some, reflecting their agricultural backgrounds, and others, depicting their escapes from Laos into Thailand,” he said.
Asked whether there was any resistance to the influx of Hmong people, who now tally more than 2,200 in the county, Frye said, “It was a bit overwhelming for our church — having all these people come from a foreign land was a real paradigm shift.”
But volunteers from throughout the city played important volunteer roles, she said, especially singling out assistance from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University, RSVP, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, in addition to the YMCA.
“The Y was pretty white then,” Fry said, with Weathers adding, “The whole city was.”
Mayor John Medinger was especially welcoming, and the St. Clare Health Mission that FSPA Sister Leclare Beres founded initially was known as the Indochinese Clinic, Frye said.
Hmong children themselves were key players in the assimilation, serving as interpreters between parishioners and their parents, Frye said.
Frye recalled one in particular, Chay Vue, who became close to her family when he was about 10 or 12. Her children were especially impressed when they saw him receive his degree during graduation ceremonies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Weathers counts the Hmong refugees’ desire to learn English among the most satisfying aspects of the resettlement.
“They also wanted to learn to sew,” she said. “We thought why would they want to learn to sew when they could create such beautiful needlework? But they wanted to sew clothes.
“They also wanted to cook — not Hmong food, but American. They wanted to make Rice Krispie bars,” Weathers said, laughing.
The refugees returned kindness for kindness, the parishioners said.
“I once had three young children who all had chicken pox,” Frye said. “We were quarantined for a month.”
Frye called a Hmong friend, and he dropped his son off within 10 minutes to help her, she said.
The Hmong population evolved from dependence to independence, said the Rev. Patrick Augustine, himself an immigrant from Pakistan who came to La Crosse in 2003 to become the church’s rector.
“Thirty years ago, the community was raising money to put them in rental houses,” Augustine said. “Now, they are buying homes for their parents.”
The art exhibit, expected to be open to the public for about six weeks, is a tribute to them and the parish, he said. One end of the gallery features the needlework of nonagenarian Dr. Sig Gundersen, a retired surgeon of the Gundersen Health System heritage.
“It is a tribute and to remember the history. This is what the church did, and these people are flourishing,” Augustine said.
The openness of the parish and La Crosse to welcoming the refugees is founded on biblical beliefs, he said, quoting Matthew 25 and Christ’s admonition that tending to the needs of the least in society is like caring for him.
At one point, Christ Church counted about 150 Hmong among its members, he said, although most now worship in churches of other denominations or at their own house of worship, the Hmong Faith Alliance Church.
“This parish has no colored biases. It is a unique parish — we welcome all of God’s children, whether they are Christian or non-Christian, atheist or Muslim. This place is open as long as you tolerate,” he said with a hearty laugh.