Priest travels ‘home’ to prepare for the future
By Michele Chan Santos
Sometimes, when making an important change in your life, you need to go back to your roots.
At the beginning of 2015, when Father Le-Minh Joseph Pham learned he would be leaving St. Margaret Mary Parish in Cedar Park (where he had been pastor for 17 years) to become the new pastor at Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in North Austin, he realized he needed to return to Vietnam to make this transition successfully.
His former parish, St. Margaret Mary, is a congregation with Masses in English and Spanish. Holy Vietnamese Martyrs is predominantly a Vietnamese parish, with Masses in Vietnamese.
“I needed to refresh my knowledge of Vietnamese culture, refresh my language skills,” Father Le-Minh said. “I had been back to Vietnam, but not for an extended visit. I had not said the sacraments in Vietnamese for many years.”
So he traveled back to Saigon in August 2015, and stayed for two months, the longest time he had been in Vietnam since he left with his family at the age of 11.
A journey to America
Father Le-Minh’s family escaped Vietnam on April 20, 1975, 10 days before the fall of Saigon. His father worked for the American embassy. The American ambassador told the embassy staff to get out of the country as soon as possible, before the Viet Cong captured the city.
They were able to take a plane out, all 11 of them – father, mother, and nine children, ranging in age from 15 to 1.
Thousands of others were not so lucky. Many refugees fled Vietnam by boat, and many of them died, from thirst, starvation and disease.
The family flew to the Philippines, then Guam, and then Fort Chaffee, Ark. The U.S. government used Fort Chaffee as a refugee camp, where refugees were given medical screenings and housed until they could be matched with sponsors. The family stayed there until November of 1975, when a church –– the Central Baptist Church of Bryan –– sponsored them.
The family moved to Bryan. His father, who had worked at the embassy, found an entry-level job at a metal company.
“It was hard,” Father Le-Minh said. “We had to start all over.”
They all worked –– his older brothers and sisters found jobs, and he started mowing lawns and delivering the newspaper for extra money.
The family attended Central Baptist Church for a while, but as lifelong Catholics, they soon became members of St. Joseph Parish in Bryan. The children grew up in Bryan, and the family became part of the parish community.
After graduating from Bryan High School, Father Le-Minh decided to enter the seminary.
“In looking at how my family escaped from Vietnam, it was a great blessing,” he said. “If we had to escape by boat, maybe half my family or more would have died.”
“I feel that God protected us,” he said. “I joined the seminary to thank God for his blessings by becoming a priest.”
During the two months Father Le-Minh spent in Vietnam, he stayed with the Missionaries of Christ’s Charity, an order affiliated with the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa.
“These nuns serve the poorest of the poor,” Father Le-Minh said. They run a home for orphans, another for elderly disabled people (who were previously homeless), as well as a third residence for unmarried, pregnant teenagers. Most of the sisters have nursing degrees, and they care for the people, as well as growing food to feed them, sewing clothes and teaching the children.
Father Le-Minh was able to celebrate Mass there, his first time saying Mass in Vietnam. On previous visits, he did not conduct a service because the Communist government might have had him arrested. This time, relations between the government and the Catholic Church have improved, and Catholics are allowed to openly practice their faith.
“The people are more bold now about being Catholic,” he said. “They practice their faith with courage.”
While he was there, he purchased computers for the orphanage, with money donated by St. Margaret Mary parishioners. He also helped the sisters distribute food, work in the garden and care for the children.
Since coming back, he has settled into life as the pastor of Holy Vietnamese Martyrs. He is enjoying his work at his new parish and is grateful to Bishop Vásquez for allowing him to travel to Vietnam for such an educational sabbatical.
“I was very inspired by the nuns and the work that they do,” he said. “The complaints we have here seem like nothing compared to what they do each day.”
Sister Mary Frances Ha Tinh, the Mother Superior of the order, visited Austin recently, to gather donations. Their web site is in Vietnamese and English at www.mcchrist.org. To donate to the Missionaries of Christ’s Charity in Vietnam, contact Father Le-Minh at (512) 834-8483.