In yesterday’s column (Part I), I told you about a Franciscan Friar, Brother Anthony Pham Dinh Tuyen OFM Conv, beginnings and escape from Vietnam as a young person after the fall of Saigon in 1975, his new life in the U.S., eventual poor health, then news of imminent death. Today, I finish this inspiring story.
Can I go back to Vietnam?
After learning that “sister cancer” had metastasized, spread throughout his body, this relatively new friar in his mid-thirties faced this trial and asked to return to his homeland.
Fr. Francisco Nahoe OFM Conv, his friend and superior in the order, continues this story:
“In fact, the Minister Provincial gave his permission (to return to Vietnam) and within a month he and his mother traveled together back to Vietnam. This was their first visit since the fall of Saigon in 1975. But, they did not go to Saigon where they had previously lived and where he had been born. They went north to the ancestral village, Hoang Tu, that he had never previously seen. It was where his father was from and where some of the family members still lived.
Br. Anthony at the time, unbeknownst to us, went back to Vietnam (late May 1999) with what must have been a suitcase full of cash. Spontaneous gifts that the Vietnamese Catholic community of Orange County had given him. They said to him that they wanted him to do something good in their country. I would say he not only did something good, he did some extraordinary things. First, he received permission from the Communist authorities to rebuild the church that the Communists had burned down in 1954 at Hoang Tu in Nam Dinh Provence. As far as we are aware, this was the first time that the Communists gave permission to build a new Catholic church. They rarely give permission (today) even to renovate existing Catholic churches.”
A Church is Started
Br. Anthony gave the village the money for materials and to prepare meals for the workers from the money he had brought with him. At the same time, he also provided funds for an orphanage and two schools for at risk teenagers. The design and preparations to build the village Catholic church began. However, his health had deteriorated so badly that he was forced to return to the U.S. in early July of 1999 when construction began.
The people of the village volunteered their time to do the construction. This was done mostly by young men and women in their teens to their early twenties. These young people were born long after the Communists took over in the north of the country. They had grown up knowing from their parents and grandparents that they were a Catholic family, but had no idea what that meant. Because of the domination of Communist ideology, they were not allowed to be taught the faith by anyone – even their own parents. They were only able to receive the sparse knowledge that in their family history that they were Catholic. After working from dawn all day in a rice paddy these people went to a second job of building a church until dark. While building, they also received basic teachings in the Catholic faith.
Fr. Francisco tells it best:
“The circumstances according to which the church was built were themselves miraculous. The young people who were doing the physical labor were joined every evening by the elders of the village who would sit down while the young people were working and talk about the old times. They could not believe they were seeing a Catholic church being rebuilt in their village. And, gradually as the church became a concrete reality to them they began to talk about the priests they knew when they were children, the Nuns who prepared them for first Holy Communion, and the day the Bishop came for Confirmation.
The young people who were just following the directions left in the architects plans, were asking questions like:
What is this?
That is the baptismal font, from which we are reborn …
What are these?
Those are the stations of the cross. They mark the passion of our Lord as he goes to Calvary to die upon the cross for our salvation…
And what is this?
This is the altar of sacrifice from which we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ when the priest comes to celebrate the Mass.
So, while the young people are building the church their interaction with the elders of the village is building the Body of Christ spiritually.”
“It is Finished”
Brother Anthony died in hospice at his friary on August 16, 1999, the anniversary of his profession of solemn vows and only a few short weeks after leaving Vietnam.
The next year, in May of 2000, the friars received a phone call from Nam Dinh province.
Fr. Francisco recalls: “They said, okay we’ve got this church built now what do we do? None of us fully understood what was going on. So we called his mother and asked her what was going on there. She explained and our reaction was, WHAT…WHAT DID HE DO? So we started scrambling trying to get information, photographs, data, etc. We decided…well sure enough they’ve got a church there in the middle of this rice paddy, in a rural province of Northern Vietnam, we had better go dedicated it! ”
The church was dedicated on the feast of Saint Anthony, June 13, 2000.
The friars from Br. Anthony’s friary in Southern California interfaced with the local communist authorities in Nam Dinh Province, as well as the local Catholic church in the province, to make arraignments for the dedication. Several of the friars made the trip with Br. Anthony’s siblings and his mother. Vietnamese friars from Australia, Japan and East Asia (the Philippines, Korea and others) made plans and joined them in the dedication.
Fr. Francisco recalls: “I remember vividly the Mass of dedication of the church. Having been elsewhere to Mass in Vietnam, one is struck by how vigorously the faithful chant back the responses to the chant of the priest. That was not the case in this village. Having never been to Mass nobody knew what to do. Even the elders, by the way, had never been to vernacular Mass in Vietnamese. Their church was burnt down in 1954, fifteen years before the promulgation of the missal of Paul VI. There was no chanting and there were no responses, except from the clergy.”
I ask father Francisco if there was a choir.
He answered, “When we dedicated that church, priests both Vietnamese and foreign, converged upon an area where there had not been a Catholic church since 1954. It’s not like people travel around and say, ‘Oh, let’s go to Mass at Hanoi today’. That’s a six hour drive, and for people who don’t have cars that is not how things work. There was one road, only one vehicle at a time could travel on it, and you had to go right through a rice paddy, and there was no parking in the village at all. The priests were shuttled in. Just the logistics made it impossible to do something that we would think would be totally normal in the United States. Bring in a choir from elsewhere, laity visiting from elsewhere, etc.”
Only Observant Franciscans existed in the south, but no other Franciscans at all in the north; Capuchins, Conventuals or Observant. Four years later, this active church, through the contacts created, brought back the Conventual Franciscan mission delegation. Thus, the efforts of a man who was dying of cancer and not even a priest, planted seeds for the renewal of the Catholic faith in Vietnam.